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“Bamboo” Noodles (jook sing mein) and Hand-pulled Noodles (lai mein) @ King Won Ton (SF)

Last week I spotted this new restaurant at the address that used to be New Cheung Hing while shopping on Irving Street. The red-colored “grand opening” banner flying outside is what first caught my eye. Far more interesting was the photograph in the window of a white-capped cook astride a bamboo pole making jook sing noodles in the old-fashioned artisanal way. I’d watched Anthony Bourdain’s piece on Hong Kong and this dying art, and had thought I would have to journey there to have the opportunity to try this style of handcrafted noodles.

I went inside to ask if the noodles were indeed made by the bamboo pole method. The lady at the cash register nodded affirmatively though I can’t be sure she understood my question. Hopefully someone with more fluency than I can confirm this. The kitchen is open to view behind a glass screen. No one was making noodles at that time, only divvying the raw strands into single serving portions and then boiling them at the forward cooking station. The restaurant was about one-third full at 11:30ish that Monday. I’d already had lunch and decided to wait until Friday to try it when I could bring my mother.

When Friday rolled around, the two of us headed to Irving Street and discovered a line outside the restaurant a little after noon. I dropped off Mom, and by the time I could park and walk back, there were more than 20 people waiting outside to get in. I asked my mother if it was too hard to wait in the cold and fog, but she said she was fine. In truth, I think she was kind of excited to be part of this street scene. We asked the people ahead and behind us if they’d eaten here before, and none had.

This stretch of sidewalk turned out to be a crossroads of Chinese ex-pats; those in line were spotted by acquaintances happening to walk or drive by and had a chance to chat with relatives or friends. Our numbers swelled as some chose to wait with us for a seat for lunch. At one point a member of the restaurant staff came out to announce that once inside, there would be a long wait for won ton orders, as they’re filled and cooked to order and not prepared and stockpiled in advance. He suggested ordering chow mein for quicker service. Some of our co-queuers left at this news. The rest of us continued to bide our time and amused ourselves by doing exit polls. Reactions from the departing clientele were definitely split: some were satisfied, and the others complained about the long waits for food and that the prices were too high.

After waiting more than 20 minutes outside, finally we were seated at a six-top, shared with two couples from Hong Kong. Naturally I needed to know whether any of them had been here before. And, yes, one woman had and returned with her cousin to try it. She cautioned me that the service was bad and that when the kitchen can’t keep up with the volume, the wait staff stop taking orders to manage the demand. Since the restaurant has an automated order-entry system, this is a strange protocol that results in lots of handwaving by antsy customers trying to catch the attention of servers who are intentionally ignoring them. Her party had been waiting nearly a half-hour to place their order. And, when they were able to order finally, she commented to me that now they’d have to wait too long for the food to come. However, she said that the won tons were very good and worth it.

The grease-stained pink paper menus hadn’t been collected from their table. I asked if we could have them so that it would appear to the wait staff zooming by that we wanted to order. That did the trick and soon our order was in the kitchen too. My chopsticks had a piece of lettuce stuck to them and my spoon was greasy. I wiped them off with my napkin soaked in hot tea, the way my grandfathers had taught me as a wee one, a procedure I’d not practiced at a Chinese restaurant for many years.

Our tablemates’ food – various toppings on won ton noodle soup – appeared in less than 15 minutes, surprising them. My mother’s #14 won tons arrived shortly thereafter, which surprised all of us. We would wait another 12 minutes for my order to come. Well, at least that let us focus our full attention on the single bowl in front of us.

#14 Shrimp won ton noodle in soup, $5.25 -
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3255/2...

For the photo above, I pulled up one of the five won tons from under the mass of noodles. In the classic style, the bowl was topped with only a bit of fragrant yellow leeks. Silky textured with fluttery tails, the dumplings were filled with coarsely chopped pork and two or three whole shrimp and lived up to their “swallowing clouds” name. The very fine and wirey noodles were cooked perfectly to a bouncy texture. If they’re not “bamboo noodles”, then something else is going on that makes them simultaneously more delicate but also firmer and crisper in bite than any Hong Kong-style noodles I’ve had in the Bay Area. The broth was just average, lacking the orange-y tint of shrimp shells with not enough taste of the sea and relying too much on chicken bouillon powder. The initial tastes of the broth were good enough, but as we got to the bottom of the bowl, the alkali soapiness grew stronger as it leeched from the noodles rendering it inedible. I noticed that the Hong Kongers made liberal use of the red vinegar on the table and maybe that would have helped adjust the acid-alkali balance.

#62 Soft pork bone lai mein, $7.99
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2283/2...

I had ordered the lai mein not really knowing what it might be other than hand-pulled noodles. With Japanese toppings of psychedelic fishcake, bamboo shoots, red ginger shreds, half a soy egg, scallions, and wakame, this was a caricature of ramen, which is itself a Japanese take on Chinese noodles. Our tablemate asked me to pull up some of the noodles into view and she nodded her approval saying she would order this next time. Thickish, dense and very chewy, the noodles were outstanding. My mother didn't like the heaviness of this prep, but she liked the elastic noodles themselves. The roasted and then braised pork, made with the rib tips had the smooth succulence and buttery tenderness I love about this cut of meat. Some of the cartilage was too hard and thick to eat though. The milky toned pork bone stock was greasy, meaty and heavy, music to tonkotsu ramen lovers ears, and beats out any i've had in the City.

I'd have to put myself in the camp that says this place is worth the wait and cost. The noodle-making is superlative, and with time, hopefully the rest of the accompaniments can make the same grade.

Discussion of Anthony Bourdain, “No Reservations – Hong Kong” -
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/437824

Bourdain Bamboo Noodle-maker segment video -
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMk_5t...

More about jook sing mein (竹昇麵) -
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jook-sin...
http://www.yp.com.mo/wongchikei/

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King Won Ton
1936 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

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  1. Melanie,
    Fantastic report...and your photos were wonderful...it is a definite on my list...I'll try to go at off hours to see if that helps

    1 Reply
    1. re: ChowFun_derek

      The tables and floors were a mess during lunch house. Hope it will be cleaner when you visit. Please do ask when the noodles are made, would love to see the process, or at least get confirmation that these are bamboo noodles.

    2. Great report. Bamboo noodle is a dying artform, lucky SFers!

      I recall seeing ads for this place in the Chinese newspaper. Is this place called Won Tun Meen Dai Wong in Chinese? (Won Ton Noodle King?)

      A good classical HK Cantonese won ton noodle broth requires not just dried shrimp but pork bones and dai day yue (a type of fish). The best won ton noodle broth I had to date was at Chef Wai when Andy was still working there (where he took it a step further and made a surpreme broth with it that had hints of chicken and chicken bones).

      3 Replies
      1. re: K K

        Yes, the place is called that in Chinese.

        1. re: manda

          Thanks, manda, have you tried it?

          Here's my photo of the ad posted in the window showing the English name as Won Ton King Noodle.
          http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3142/2...

          The sign on the restaurant says King Won Ton & Noodle. The menus say Won Ton King.

        2. re: K K

          Here's an older post about the classic won ton noodle broth,
          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4072...

          I looked at other info about this place on the web, and none seem to mention the bamboo noodle angle. Also many complaints about the lack of more stuff on the won ton soup. Sheesh.

        3. Thanks for the preview, I managed to squeeze it in last week.

          The wheat noodles in the shrimp wonton noodles were indeed thinner than most, and I really liked the way they snapped on the teeth. I wouldn't mind them a little less cooked and more resilient but they were very enjoyable. Shrimp wontons were pleasant and fresh, with seemingly less of the usual baking soda (?) marinate that gives them a tenderized ripping texture. Soup was similarly unspectacular on my visit.

          The soft pork bone lai mein OTOH was rather disappointing, noodles verging on mushiness, and a bit thicker than I was expecting (more udon-sized iirc). The braised pork was excellent, rich and sticky from the cartilage and carrying a tiny clovey hint of what I thought was star anise. We ended up with a bit of optimization at the table, combining the noodles from the wonton noodles with the broth and meat from the lai mein in the empty bowls that we had used to share.

          Incidentally, the signs on the walls indicate abalone noodles, which would have been the next thing I would try, but alas, there were other things to sample on this brief trip.

          8 Replies
          1. re: limster

            Thanks for giving it a try. What time were you there and did you have to wait for a table? Any luck on confirming that these are indeed bamboo noodles?

            I like your idea of mixing and matching.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              We there at ~ 5pm on Tues, and were seated right away, lots of empty tables, no big waits or or anything for the food. Didn't see any noodle making, and had a few other stops to make, so didn't do much in-depth research otherwise. I can't remember if they had some sort of stewed meat (e.g. beef or pork) noodle on the menu, but it might be worth checking if someone had a takeout menu handy.

              1. re: limster

                The menu has 80+ items on it, and beef brisket stew is one of the options I recall.

                I was really excited to stumble on this place and I hope other chowhounds will try it and report back. It's far from perfect, but the noodlemaking great and not found anywhere else around here.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Good to hear about the brisket option. I'd certainly be checking out a bunch of other items on their menu if I lived in SF. Also a couple of items on the walls like the abalone noodles piqued my curiosity. Hope to hear about them from other chowhounds!

              2. re: Melanie Wong

                It's probably not bamboo noodle. You could tell by the alkaline smell. The purpose of adding alkaline is to make the noodles tender but not too firm without the bamboo work. So there is really no reason to do both. And plus their noodles are available in major chinese markets like ranch 99 and sun si kai, and provide to restruants as well. There is no way you can make a mass production on the bamboo noodle. It's one of the reason damboo noodle is dying.

                1. re: commando

                  Yes, that makes sense. However, the descriptions I've read of bamboo noodle making include addition of alkaline water. Also, the restaurant could be making a small portion of its noodles and buying others.

                  No one has seen any noodlemaking going on yet. I had plotted with ChowFun to show up early in the morning before the restaurant opens to press our noses up against the windows to try to catch something going on in the kitchen.

              3. re: limster

                I think the marinade is cornstarch...

                By the way, great post everyone, and thanks for kicking it off Melanie!

                1. re: mchan

                  I'm pretty sure tenderizing marinade isn't cornstarch or even arrowroot or tapioca powders. One of those powders that Mom had in kitchen.....Yimster would know.

              4. Great find. The last I heard, that space was taken over by PPQ at the end of last year and was going to be another branch of PPQ, but apparently there was a shift in the wind in April. Any idea who's behind King Won Ton? It'll be interesting to find out how they came up with a pole jockey.

                1. I tried this place about two months ago as part of my never-ending quest to find lah-mian similar to the incredible noodle shops of Eldridge Street in NYC.
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/322988

                  I tried the soft pork bone lai mein based on a positive Yelp review. It was the best ramen-style noodle I've found in the Bay Area, nice and chewy, with a rich, meaty pork broth. Loved your descriptions of the two noodle dishes Melanie! Pure food poetry.

                  Still seeking out Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles though.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: possumspice

                    Thanks, I'm thinking I should evaluate the lai mein for the ramen rankings. (g)

                    Could you describe what you're looking for in Lanzhou noodles?

                    1. re: possumspice

                      Yes, the pork bone lah mien seemed much closer to ramen I've had in Japanese restaurants than any Chinese soup noodle I've sampled. Though I understand that ramen is originally Chinese.

                      The Lanzhou noodles are thin like a ramen noodle, but I feel like the dough must be different, somehow the noodle tastes smoother? It's served in a beef broth, though not as rich and hearty as niu ro mien. This description comes with the caveat that I've never tasted the real thing...only what is being served in NYC's Chinatown.

                      Pic (not mine): http://flickr.com/photos/bionicgrrl/3...

                      Though looking on Flickr at pics of NRM, it does seem pretty similar to what I'm looking for. Basically, what I have eaten as Lanzhou-style lah mian in NYC seems very close to the beef noodles I've had in Taiwan, which are somehow totally different from the beef noodles I get in Taiwanese restaurants in the Bay Area. Those always seem to be fairly thick, with a very greasy (not clear) broth.

                      In the end though, if it's hand-pulled, I'll eat it.

                      1. re: possumspice

                        "In the end though, if it's hand-pulled, I'll eat it."

                        That's a philosophy I can get behind! Thanks.

                        1. re: possumspice

                          Based on th picture looks more like Shandong hand-pulled noodles. You may be better off trying them at a Shandong-style restaurant. But their NRM, although served, may not be the same as the Taiwanese style.

                          Also QQ Noodle does a hand-pulled noodle, even more "smooth" than Shandong style due to the use of higher percentage of tapioca/potato starch.

                          1. re: tanspace

                            i tried qq noodles in fremont and was pretty disappointed. the noodles were not very "q" :(

                            what is so great about the nyc noodles i've had is that they are so thin but still have some bite to them.

                            i went back to try the won ton "bamboo" noodles, which did have a satisfying, chewy texture. plus i loved the shrimp-stuffed wontons and clear, clean broth. so maybe i will have to content myself with those for now.

                            1. re: possumspice

                              Ok, if you feel QQ noodle's are not Q enough, then you should not be looking for hand-pulled noodles. Real "shou la mian" are not supposed to be the "hardest", it is supposed to be Q - bouncy with bite but not hard. The bamboo noodles, which you think has the right texture, will never be made using hand-pulled method, but always some sort of hand-pressed method. And that's why you'll mainly find it in the really thin type of egg noodle or cantonese style "tang zhuang" mian.