There are a few hole-in-the-wall places in Chinatown that I’ve been going to for as long as I can remember. Dai Wong, or Big Wong Restaurant, is one of them. When I walk in and inhale the scent of freshly roasted duck, and hear the deadly chop of a flashing knife against a butchering block, I feel at home. When old ladies push towards the front of the take out line asking for the extra fatty, extra flavorful pieces of barbecue pork to take home, I feel happy in my heart. And when the waiters are brusque in their manner, but efficient in their service, I know that all is right in the world.
Now that I live on the west coast, I find myself craving the simple comforts of Big Wong all the time – especially when it’s a cold, foggy, rainy Bay day. Or an absurdly cold, dead-of-winter night in NY, like the night my dad and I snuck in a secret pre-dinner dinner. Hehehe. We so sneaky.
There is something inexplicably homey about a bowl of hot congee that has been simmering in a huge pot all day. It is pure comfort when you are chilled to the bone. I don’t know what their secret is, but Big Wong’s congee is rich, hearty, and has the perfect velvety consistency every time.
Congee is basically a rice porridge that is often flavored with chopped beef, or my favorite, “thousand-year egg.”
Also called “century egg,” this Chinese delicacy is made by preserving duck eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw for about three months. Apparently, back in the day, eggs were preserved in mud made from alkaline clay in order to preserve them in times of plenty. The clay would harden around the egg and cure it so it wouldn’t spoil. (My dad claims that they used to use horse’s pee to increase the pH levels in the preservation process. Kind of makes sense, although I’m not sure how much truth there is to it…he did succeed in grossing me out for a second though. Eww.)
In any case, whether through ancient or modern day methods, the result is a complete transformation of the egg. The yolk becomes a bluish-dark grey color, and the surrounding white is now anything but white. The flavor has been described as having a sulphuric flavor to it…which is not too far off.
I know, you’re scared. But I assure you, it’s delicious! My brother and I used to go fishing for pieces of thousand-year egg hidden in a bowl of congee and fight over who got to eat it.
If you’re squeamish over the black and blue, rotten looking (and sometimes smelling) eggs…then fine, be that way. I’ll win you over yet with some fried dough!
There are two kinds of fried “doughnuts” that you see people dipping into their congee. Yuw Jah Gwai is one kind that looks like two long breadsticks stuck together, and is “plain” or “regular” dough flavored. And then there is my favorite, the “sweet” version called Gnuw Lei Sau which is more oval shaped. Like the regular kind, it is super crispy on the outside, but this one is softer and doughier on the inside, and it has some extra crumble on top that is slightly sweetened. I fiend over this stuff! Someone please tell me, where can I find it in SF?!
And then of course there’s the duck. Glorious, fatty, crispy-skinned duck, luxuriating in a pool of sweet soy sauce. You just can’t beat it here. You’ll find yourself digging in, licking your fingers, with a heap of useless 3”x3” napkins littered around you.
The restaurant has done well for itself over the years, and has even seen business grow to a sister restaurant a few blocks away (Big Wong 2). Maybe it’s because they keep it real at Dai Wong. The prices are good (my dad and I had 2 bowls of congee, a half-order of duck, and a side of fried dough for about 15 bucks), the food is better, and it’s Chinatown at its finest. Quick, dirty, satisfying…home.
Big Wong Restaurant
67 Mott St
(between Bayard St & Canal St)
New York, NY 10013