This week’s column about all things good to eat in Madison focuses on fried rice. Yes, fried rice. This may seem like a silly topic to base an entire article on, but if you think about it, fried rice can be an essential component in any thrifty, hungry college student’s diet.
I don’t want to sound like Sam-I-Am, but fried rice is definitely one of the most versatile and accessible foods available. You can eat it for dinner, and you can eat it for lunch. You could eat it at 2 a.m., or you could save it for breakfast the next morning. You can eat it from a box, you can eat it with a fox and it’s always available for takeout and delivery. These crowd-pleasing qualities are what make fried rice such an easy go-to meal, available at any time of the day or night.
Since such a wide world of fried rice exists — different styles, different prices and different ingredients — I could select only a sampling of the fried rice available around Madison. I focus here on a mix of Asian cuisines to highlight the variability of the dish. I tasted the standard cheap Chinese food from Asian Kitchen, the more traditional Chinese food from Hong Kong Cafe, the wildcard Laotian-style fried rice from Lao Laan-Xang on Williamson Street, Japanese hibachi fried rice from Takara and an Asian-fusion variety from Nam’s Noodles. All of these were tasty in their own way, but only one could be the best.
Let’s start with Asian Kitchen. Because of their cheap food, late-night hours and bright yellow paint job, Asian Kitchen always draws many customers like a lantern does flies. This is not to say their food doesn’t taste good. It does. It’s what most Americans think of when they think Chinese takeout: cheap, greasy and filling. But it’s not the most impressive Asian cuisine to be found in the downtown area by any means. Their fried rice was on average the least expensive of those I sampled, but was definitely the least well-rounded as well, consisting of rice with only a few carrots, peas and eggs mixed in. There was simply no finesse to it. In comparing Asian Kitchen’s rice with the others I sampled, I found it to be a comparison not unlike comparing a burger from McDonald’s and one from Dotty’s. Cheap and tasty, yes, but if you’re looking for a heartier, more well-rounded meal, look elsewhere.
Hong Kong Cafe’s fried rice was similarly unrefined. I ordered the combination fried rice, which had shrimp, chicken, beef and veggies in it. Although it filled me up without weighing me down, I wasn’t completely happy with it. First of all, it wasn’t well seasoned, so the flavors of the meats and vegetables weren’t able to come through in eating the dish. Second, it was $10. I ordered the “dinner” size, which I imagine is even larger than the “lunch” size, and I still didn’t receive the mound of fried rice I’ve come to expect from Chinese restaurants — especially if I’ve paid $10 for it. In considering the price plus the potential for leftovers, Hong Kong Cafe’s fried rice is not the best option for taste or practicality.
Next, I tried the wild card of the bunch, Laotian-style fried rice. Lao Laan-Xang is one of my favorite restaurants in Madison, and I had to see how their fried rice measured up to the traditional version. The Lao Laan-Xang fried rice was unlike any I’ve eaten before. It had much larger chunks of chicken, pork and vegetables than fried rice normally does, with full shrimp, cashews, pieces of tomato, pineapple, cucumber, parsley, chives and corn also included in the dish.
The enticing aroma and jamboree of flavors, which, surprisingly, combined extremely well, could have set Lao Laan-Xang’s fried rice at the top of my list, except for one fatal flaw: mushiness. Even after considering the fact that Laotian dishes use a different type of rice called glutinous rice, which has a stickier texture and nuttier flavor than the rice used in most Chinese dishes, I knew the rice in my order was still far too wet. The serving size was monstrous, so I definitely got my $9.75 worth of food, but in ordering fried rice, it is essential that the rice itself be of correct consistency. Unfortunately, Lao Laan-Xang’s rice lacked palatable texture, diminishing its chances for being judged the best by my standards.
Flavor-wise, I will admit I came to a draw between Nam’s Noodles and Takara. Nam’s Noodles has a reputation for making delicious fried rice and the namesake Nam’s fried rice was no exception. It tasted like it came from a street vendor — each exotic ingredient brought something to the table, resulting in a finely-crafted, well-rounded dish. It had a lovely combination of textures and a perfect balance of heat coming from chili pepper and cool crunch from the bean sprouts. Another element that set Nam’s rice apart from the others was the inclusion of Chinese sausage, a hard-to-find ingredient that is an indicator of authentic Chinese fare. The complexity and balance of the flavors in this dish — combined with its portion size and price ($7.95) — put Nam’s fried rice near the top of my list. The only fried rice to match its flavor was that of Takara.
As a sushi restaurant, Takara has a responsibility to make the perfect rice, which is one of the most important components of good sushi. The consistency must be a bit sticky, and every kernel must be both firm and tender at the same time. The care that goes into the long process of making sushi rice at Takara easily translates into perfectly crafted fried rice. The flavor is rich but delicate, and each kernel is evenly coated with a glistening sheen coming off the hibachi grill. Sesame seeds add an interesting kick to the flavor, and although the dish is fried, it still seems like you’re eating something fresh and healthy. Takara’s perfectly seasoned fried rice came as a surprise to me just when I was ready to name Nam’s Noodles as the restaurant with the best fried rice. And the reason it conquers the list is its price. For takeout, Takara’s fried rice is only $3.95. To put that in perspective, it’s just 10 cents more than the rice I ate at the beginning of my tour at Asian Kitchen.
The accessibility and affordability of fried rice make it an easy favorite, and if you’re looking for a delicious version as you scrounge downtown for a cheap meal, go to Takara. Hey, they’ve even started delivering their food. Now you can eat it here or there, you can eat it anywhere.
Elin Amundson is a senior majoring in history and philosophy. Is there a fried rice you like to eat from a box with a fox? Send comments and suggestions to [email protected]