On weekends especially, the line outside the Wallingford juice bar can get unruly. But this queue isn’t waiting for acai smoothies. Customers brave rainy skies, raw weather, and a bit of confusion about how to socially distance around the sidewalk counter, all in the name of meticulously composed bowls of congee.
The rice porridge, of course, adopts various names across cultures. It always struck J.P. Lertsirisin as odd that Seattle doesn’t have shops dedicated to its comforting, even quasi-medicinal charms. Lertsirisin and two partners ran the former Congeez counter in the Uwajimaya food court, where the menu hewed mostly to familiar preparations. When he launched Secret Congee (the name is a nod to its storefront-less status, as well as Secret Pizza in his Las Vegas hometown) Lertsirisin went big. He convened a stable of cooks and chefs to recast congee as a series of composed dishes that still venerate Southeast Asian flavors: blue crabmeat with heady fried garlic; vegan roasted squash; pork belly and Chinese five spice; a riff on tom yum. No need to doctor these bowls with soy sauce or chili crisp.
The foundational congee relies on chicken bones for creaminess and doesn’t stint on ginger and scallion (mushrooms flavor a meatless version). Different preparations yield different textures. “Some people think of it as a soup,” says Lertsirisin. “We think about it more like grits or polenta.”
While Seattle has a preponderance of congee, it’s usually a small part of a larger menu. “There are so many Asian dishes that deserve more attention as a standalone,” says Lertsirisin. “If you go to a teriyaki place, you don’t expect to have pho.”
For now, Secret Congee operates out of a Wallingford commissary kitchen. Compostable bowls emerge through the adjacent Juisala juice bar; preorders help speed up the process. While congee was certainly ripe for elevation, the youtiao, side orders of savory twice-fried dough, are classic, sourced from Chinatown–International District. The act of dragging one through porridge, reinvented or no, might be sacrosanct.