It’s a game of Where’s Waldo, but sometimes you can identify the single dish on a restaurant’s menu that, in its pure conceptual genius, encapsulates the whole shebang—the restaurateur’s vision, the chef’s wisdom, the restaurant’s location, its décor, sound level, even lighting. At Bonnie’s, the celebrated Cantonese-American restaurant in Williamsburg owned and operated by Calvin Eng (a finalist for the 2022 James Beard Foundation “Rising Chef” award), that dish is jook, the comforting, wildly economical rice porridge of China that’s often eaten for breakfast. At Bonnie’s, the dish lurks inconspicuously in the menu’s noodle section, and it is everything.
OK, listen. You could go with the Cha Siu McRib, a massive sandwich that hits the table with a steak knife stabbed through its milk bun. It’s filled with boned-out baby back rib meat steamed until it has the falling-apart, fatty luxury of really good pastrami; its slabs are slicked with sweet, five spice glaze, then perked up with Chinese mustard and McDonald’s-adjacent bread and butter pickles. This dish certainly says Cantonese-American, as cha siu is that region’s gift to barbecued pork and nothing’s as American as McDonald’s. Yet, for my money, the emblematic dish at Bonnie’s is still jook.
Bonnie is the anglicized nickname of Eng’s mother, Mew Ha Chew, and, as a kid growing up in Bay Ridge, jook (the Cantonese word for congee) was a part of Eng’s life. For Eng, it conjures very specific Chinese-American memories—his family ate it at least once a week. “A lot of times we used leftover rotisserie chicken from Costco, and just made congee out of the carcass.” He laughs, “And after Thanksgiving, turkey congee is like a thing in every Chinese household. Just utilizing the whole bird—saving the bones, necks and wings—and making 10 more meals out of it.”
Besides taking her name for his restaurant, Eng also uses his mother’s ratio of rice to liquid for his jook. These can vary widely, from 1:9 to 1:12 or even greater. The ratio at Bonnie’s yields a pearly, silky porridge in which the ghost of each grain can be detected as a miniscule sliver of opacity. Otherwise, translucent white starch—teased out by liquid, heat and time—is what it’s all about. Eng serves it with jook’s traditional partner, a baton of the warm, deep-fried bread, youh ja gwai (sometimes called youtiao or even “Chinese cruller”). At home, the Engs didn’t bother with youh ja gwai, but when eating out, Eng says, “I always ordered it, using it as a dunker or a vehicle to just shovel everything in. It makes it so much better.”
Having come out of Nom Wah Nolita and Win Son, the lavishly praised Taiwanese-American spot in East Williamsburg, Eng is no operational slouch. Strategically, jook is a chef’s dream. Not only is it economical, but it holds well—it merely needs garnishing for pickup. As listed on the menu (Gerng Jook: jasmine rice congee, soft soy egg, pork floss and peanut shallot crumble), the smooth, delicately flavored jook arrives topped with a pie chart of complexly textured and flavored garnishes: salty-sweet pork threads, a jammy-yolked egg, while aromatic crunch comes from separate piles of fried shallot powder-dusted peanuts, cilantro leaves and scallion greens. The genius here is that, unlike most versions, Eng’s porridge is ginger-based and vegan, yielding a jook perfectly tailored to time (these days) and place (here). “Everything on top can be swapped out,” Eng says. “Like if there are vegetarians or vegans, I put salted radish on it instead of pork.” Even better, kitchen-wise, is the youh ja gwai does double-duty, cubed in Bonnie’s Dao Gok (Chinese long beans and fermented bean curd garlic butter). Win.
Bonnie’s is a bright and loud place: Light and sound bounce off its tiled floor, white laminate tabletops and white walls. It has the brisk, easy cheer of a café or luncheonette, if only one had a buzzing bar. It’s an environment that, given a different menu, might support your craving for waffles for dinner. Thus, it certainly doesn’t judge your evening jook—which, at Bonnie’s, is everything.