Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.
"Would you like your pork chop with spaghetti or rice?" the waitress at Little Garden asked. I peered around her, spotting snowballs of white grains on the plates around me. Rice it was, with a half-cob of corn on the side.
In English, Little Garden's sign advertises the free 90 minutes of parking customers get at the garage next door, but its Chinese-character subtitle, "Hong Kong-style Cha Chaan Teng," is more telling. Cha chaan teng, cafes specializing in simple eats and Western-influenced dishes, speckle the streets of Hong Kong. They're where you go for baked rice or spaghetti, macaroni in soup, or curried brisket, as well as black tea brewed strong and thickened up with evaporated milk.
On both my visits to Little Garden, a noon rush packed the restaurant. Grandmother-babysitters fed their charges, clumps of young men inhaled wonton soups, and the owners' kids were parked in front of the television at the back left table, watching Disney tween dramas. As I waited for my pork chop, two high school girls next to me speculated over their romantic prospects. "Would you marry a white guy?" one asked the other.
"I don't know," she responded. "Maybe a Brazilian."
"I want him to have a good body. Nice muscles."
"What time is it?" their mother interrupted. "It's daytime out! Time for dreaming is at night." She smirked into her sweet and sour pork.
I'd ordered Hong Kong-style milk tea with my pork chop, but the waitress decided I needed to have it cold instead of hot, and I took a few sips of the iced drink, black tea brewed for so long that it tasted floral and cloyingly sweet. The pork chop was actually juicier than chops I've eaten at many Midwestern diners, and coated in a tongue-numbing black pepper gravy that reminded me of the wide blue skies of Hidden Valley Ranch.
Little Garden's 271-item menu also includes Cantonese hot pots, Hainan chicken, and fried rice stick noodles with ox tongue, but since everyone around me seemed to be focusing on the HK diner food, on a second visit I ordered the baked beef and egg over rice. Stringy beef, green beans, and carrot cubes were braised in a mild, ginger-spiked tomato sauce. The stew was ladled over a casserole of fried rice, then stuck under the broiler until the sauce bubbled and blackened. I swirled the yolk of a fried egg into the stew and half-crunchy rice.
Truth be told, I enjoyed it in a half-conscious way, much like the mac and cheese at Homestyle Buffet still tastes good even when it's bad. I've eaten at dozens of cha chaan teng in the United States, and have always found that I'm missing the central element -- nostalgia -- that makes American versions of Cantonized Western food so attractive to Hong Kong expats and their children. I watched the cooking show on the TV for a while, ate as much of the rice as I could, then returned to the office.
Little Garden: 750 Vallejo (at Powell), 399-0368. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day but Wednesday.