Neighborhood Gems: Utopia Cafe

Home-cooked food in Chinatown

In October, Tasting Table asked readers for their favorite neighborhood gems. Now we're introducing the winning picks.

"Twenty minutes," the server always announces when she takes your order for one of Utopia Café's 15 signature clay pot rice dishes. She's not lying.

But you won't mind the wait.

The longstanding Chinatown restaurant operates at two speeds: Waitresses buzz around the lemon-yellow room with the purposefulness of hungry hummingbirds, feeding tourists lured in by street-corner menu hustlers and then sending them on their way.

The rest of us–parents cutting skinny egg noodles for their three-year-olds, regulars who've hiked up the hill from the Financial District–are taking our time.

Clams in black bean sauce

Utopia Cafe does right by Cantonese standards like juicy clams coated in black-bean sauce ($11) and lamb with bean curd simmered in a clay pot ($10). The dishes aren't gussied up, that's for sure, but they're not cheap food prepared cheaply, either.

The faint sizzling of the still-hot vessel announces the arrival of the clay pot rice. The sound crescendos when you pour a bowl of a soy-based sauce over the top, which helps the rice on the sides of the bowl form a crisp shell. Order the version with Chinese sausage and preserved duck ($9) and you'll find the grains of rice seasoned with their melted fat.

It's the Cantonese version of mac and cheese, comforting and ridiculously simple.

Other Chinatown Neighborhood Gems: Lai Hong Lounge, R&G Lounge, Yee's Restaurant, Z&Y Restaurant