At Ong's, the soup and noodle emporium that bills itself as a "Chou-Jou and Vietnamese" restaurant, we put our heads together - a waitperson, myself, and owner Victoria Truong and Van Ong, her husband the cook (ethnic Chinese whose families emigrated to Vietnam) - and try to reach consensus on the geography and culinary meaning of Chou-Jou.
Ong's began life as the Nice Chinese Noodle House, a nine-table cafe at the foot of Chinatown's ornate Friendship Gate. Ten years ago it moved (and greatly expanded) to the corner of 11th and Race, the eastern, unannounced gateway to Chinatown. And while I've passed it weekly, and even had the occasional big bowl of soup there, it wasn't until recently that I began to explore, to my growing delight, the wider range of the place.
One day there were the House Special Shrimp Rolls ($6.95), exquisite, spongy, soy-wrappered packets of precisely folded and fried shrimp mousse and scallion, a touch of water chestnut (or jicama) providing crunch. Dipped in sweet plum sauce, the rolls have become a recurring distraction: I find it hard not to order them now, even with a bowl of soup large enough to satisfy any normal eater.
Another day, Victoria turned me on to the panfried chive buns ($5.95), doughy, seared pancakes her grandmother used to make with two types of rice flour, then stuff with a brilliant green chop of sauteed garlic chives. Here they steam them first, then panfry them golden to order. (Trust me, don't get started with these things.)
Then there's congee ($5.95), the creamy rice porridge - less watery than some Cantonese styles - made with homemade chicken stock, shredded ginger, and, in my bowl, white fish poached to the texture of the tenderest of Slovak dumplings.
"Vietnamese food," of course, is no longer exotic: Spring rolls populate even tables never touched by a chopstick. But Chou-Jou (roughly Chow-Joe)?
The best we come up with is that, as a waiter put it: "Canton [now Guangdong] is a province like Pennsylvania. Chou-Jou is like Philadelphia." Which is to say it's a city, but with a few of its own twists on flavors.
Broader Cantonese-style cookery has gotten a bad rap in Chinatowns because it was the first of China's varied regional cuisines retooled for Western palates; it ended up corn-starch-thickened, stewy, colorless and bland.
Ong's has few trappings of those cartoonish old dishes. It is a spare sprawl of sturdy wooden tables, flooded with sunlight from its plate-glass windows. And its soups feature the delicacy (not blandness), proud freshness (here all the shrimp are peeled by hand), and lightness of the more authentic, undiluted Chou-Jou version of Cantonese cookery, also known as Chiu chow, or Chao zhou.
Take the "Shredded Free-Range Chicken" soup, a sunny bowl heaped with shreds of white chicken and a spray of garlic chive. What gives it its Chou-Jou-ness? Victoria, who grew up in the southern part of South Vietnam, says the stock is made by simmering a stewing chicken for 24 hours, unlike quicker styles of soupmaking in which the broth may be boiled or thickened as in, say, a Szechuan hot-and-sour soup.
The broth - indeed light and clean and delicate - is poured over rice noodles, bean sprouts, a little pickled cabbage, and, curiously, romaine lettuce, then topped with fried garlic, chives, scallions and cilantro, and that shred of fresh, "never frozen," free-range chicken.
It has become my go-to staple here. Which is not to say it is immune to challenge by the tender shrimp dumpling soup, the mildly spicy satay beef soup, or some other Chou-Jou (or Vietnamese) sleeper that has been lurking on the menu, waiting for a weak moment to pounce.
1038 Race St.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.