Madame Vo BBQ’s standout dish came as a surprise to chef Jimmy Ly. The three-month-old East Village Vietnamese barbecue restaurant is known for its seven-course beef tasting, but what diners can’t stop talking about to Ly is the oxtail congee. Even Times critic Pete Wells said that “everything about it is wonderful” in his review of the restaurant this week.
“Everybody leaves here thinking and missing the oxtail congee,” Ly says.
The sweet and savory rice porridge comes as the final course in the beef tasting. Typically, the traditional seven-course Vietnamese tasting ends with a ground beef macaroni soup, he says, but he wanted to mix things up while still delivering a comforting final note.
“We want people to go home feeling fulfilled and happy,” Ly says.
The dish has subsequently taken on a life of its own. Tables often order it a la carte, and it’s become a takeout favorite — something that caught Ly and co-owner Yen Vo “off-guard.”
“I had to order to-go containers and quarts to accommodate those people,” Ly says. “We didn’t expect [this restaurant] to be to-go, but now people come in and call in just for three orders of congee.”
Here’s how the runaway hit is made.
Make the braising liquid and braise the oxtail
The braised oxtail congee has three main components: the oxtail, the congee, and the flavoring sauce. First up is setting up a strong flavor base for the beef.
Ly begins by making a braising sauce for the raw beef, putting vegetable oil, garlic, ginger, star anise, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, black pepper, sugar, MSG, and water into a wok — then reducing it down.
“I’m a wok chef. My dad taught me how to use a wok and it’s been a life changer ever since,” Ly says. He’s from a restaurant family; his family owns Paris Sandwich in Chinatown.
Once the braising liquid is done, Ly pours it over the raw oxtail and braises it in the oven for two hours, until it’s tender and falling off the bone.
Cook the congee
Making the congee is a straightforward process but takes many hours. Ly starts by cooking the rice in a rice cooker to get it going, then transferring it into a stove pot and adding water to cook it down. Finally, he adds a housemade chicken stock “for richness,” he says. It’s a standard chicken stock, with the addition of red onions, scallions, and ginger.
The congee is done when it reaches a porridge-like consistency.
Supercharge the flavor
The last step before assembly is to make the honey butter fish sauce, which is the flavor secret. Ly says that honey is not typically used in Vietnamese cuisine, but he wanted to add a sweet note for balance.
“I love to eat and cook more on the sweeter side,” he says. “When you think about congee, you think it’s savory, and I wanted it to be sweet and savory and balanced and decadent.”
Browning an entire pound of butter and adding honey and fish sauce is certainly one way to accomplish that.
All that’s left is the assembly, which is super simple. Congee goes in the bottom of a bowl, topped by a single piece of oxtail, the honey butter fish sauce, and some scallions.
“Everybody is saying it’s their favorite dish,” Ly says. “So that in itself is a success.”