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Lobster noodles, oyster pancake and wo choy @ Toon Kee, SF

I first spotted Toon Kee in December on its first day of operation. It took over the space formerly occupied by New Hai Ky. I went in to ask if this was a new owner or just a new name. The female cashier said that it had new management, owners, cooks, and menu.

Storefront
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3170/2...
Interestingly, when I was next at Lam Hoa Thuan down the street, I asked one of the staff there about this. She laughed and said, “no, the same people.”

In any case I tried it twice with my mother and brother in recent months. Like its predecessor, the cooking is Cantonese/Teochew and Vietnamese with many noodle dishes, as well as a barbecue station at the front. Prices are rock-bottom, unusual for a new leaseholder, so maybe that’s a clue.

The first time, we tried the $22 set dinner shown here for four to five people.

$22 wo choy menu
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3165/2...

There’s even an $18 set menu menu.

$18 wo choy menu
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2137/2...

I asked the manager for assistance in translating the $22 menu for us, and he was happy to help. Here’s what we had.

Old fire soup, tofu and dried mustard greens – good intensity and clarity of flavor, well-skimmed of grease.
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2047/2...

Salt poached chicken – made with a Vikon chicken (wai hong gai) and almost as good as Sam’s in Oakland, but cooked just a shade more, served with ginger oil paste.
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3087/2...

Teochew style soy sauce duck with garlic vinegar dipping sauce – one of the best ones I’ve had in the area, less fat under the skin and nice complexity from the master sauce poaching liquid, tender and rich meat served on the bone, delicious with the dipping sauce. William and I liked this a lot, whereas Mom was lukewarm and preferred the chicken.
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3247/2...

Beef and choi sum – simple stirfry with somewhat overtenderized beef and juicy choi sum with garlic,
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3027/2...

Tofu claypot – delectable for its rich gravy, can’t remember whatall was in it other than various forms of dry and fresh tofu, whole garlic cloves and black mushrooms.
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3092/2...

Steamed egg custard with live clams – silky custard was perfect but the clams in the shell were a little overcooked and rubbery.
http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2215/2...

All in all, this menu delivered good price to quality performance and a lot of food to take home with us.

On the return visit we ordered ala carte.

Lobster lo mein – listed on the wall, this was a good replacement for the inexpensive version at the now-closed Ocean on Clement with firm noodles, savory but slightly clumpier gravy with ginger and scallions, and a nicely cooked lobster.
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3079/2...

Oyster omelet – the best dish we’ve had here, and a superlative version of a classic Teochew style oyster pancake with a puffy and crispy brown exterior yet still soft and moist inside with scallions, chunks of oyster, and chewies, served with fish sauce and a steak knife.
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3022/2...

We’ve had one bad dish – water spinach with fermented shrimp paste (ong choi) that was so stringy and fibrous as to be inedible. After we’d paid the bill and the staff came by to box up our leftovers, I pointed out the problem in this uneaten dish. The manager took the offending plate back to the kitchen and there was a loud discussion. Then he gave us half a roast duck to take home to make amends. We were mightily impressed by this gesture, not seen often anywhere and especially not at this rock-bottom price point.

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Toon Kee
2191 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

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  1. Thanks for the intel, MW! I was crushed when Ocean closed down, as I was a huge fan of their lobster lo mein. Thanks for the tip on Toon Kee making a reasonably comparable version. I'll be getting over there soon to try it out.

    How much does TK charge for the lobster lo mein?

    11 Replies
    1. re: Eugene Park

      I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure the lobster lo mein was in the $13 to $15 range.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Ate @ Toon Kee for lunch today. Can confirm the lobster lo mein is $12.95. Noodles were more firm than Ocean's version, which was good. Gravy was a bit thicker than Ocean's, though a bit too thick with the corn starch. Lobster was fine. Not super flavorful, but for $12.95 you have to temper your expectations. Glad to see that I have a replacement for Ocean now.

        Also had the oyster and roast pork clay pot. Not quite as good as the version at New Gold Medal in Oakland Chinatown, but not too shabby. The roast pork Toon Kee used was a bit too salty, and didn't taste as fresh as what NGM uses. Still a solid value at just $7.25 for this dish.

        I noticed that the prices for party-sized portions of noodles and other dishes were quite reasonable. Most were in the $2.95 to $4.95 per pound range, with a minimum order of 5 pounds per item. They're listed in the middle section of the wall pricing behind the BBQ counter.

        My wife also noticed familiar faces that worked there when it was New Hai Ky, so at least some of the staff was retained.

        1. re: Eugene Park

          Thanks for the report, Eugene. Well, now we've all had too much cornstarch on the lobster gravy, maybe we can try asking for a little less the next time.

          Prices are quite competitive here, which is why it seemed like there might not be a new owner. Usually prices go up due to debt burden, but I'll take baron's word.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Probably not much we could do about the cornstarch issue. I have a feeling that Toon Kee probably has a big vat of gravy simmering away, rather than making gravy orders individually. I've tried to make similar-style gravy at home, and it's a bit labor-intensive for just a few portions worth......

            1. re: Eugene Park

              The gravy could be made ahead, but more likely it's a pan sauce. Typically, the lobster pieces would be dusted with cornstarch, oil-blanched in the wok with the scallions and ginger, then taken out. Stock would be added to the pan to make a gravy, stirring up the cornstarch in the wok. Then the whole thing is put back in the wok with the noodles. The stock would be from a big simmering vat, and yes, that part would not be made to order. A hallmark of Cantonese restaurants is the quality of these stocks, the secret ingredient added to so many dishes.

              So we could ask them to go lighter on the cornstarch, if the dish is prepped in this way. The other thing I recall from childhood when Cantonese restaurant cooking was goopier than today is that my mom would sometimes add a spoonful or two of hot tea to a dish at the table to thin out the sauce.

          2. re: Eugene Park

            Yeah, too much cornstarch on that oyster omelet as well. We tried the black pepper pork chops ($4.95?) tasty, but kinda saucy. I prefer a dryer rendition. I noticed that they have $12.88/$22.88 wo choy menus on our table and they are different from the $12/$22 wo choy menus on other tables. We'd go back to try wo choy next time. I guess, depending on which table we sit, we'll get a different menus.

            1. re: الشره

              Is there cornstarch in the egg batter? Or do you mean those chewy blobs embedded in the omelet?

              If you have a chance, it would be great if you could translate the wo choy menus for us and post the English here. Thanks!

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                I LOVE the 'chewy blobs'! The textural contrast between the egg, the oysters, the 'chewy blobs' and the crispy crust is what makes this version stand out for me...!

                1. re: ChowFun_derek

                  I do too. Some places use broken up pieces of rice noodle (aka "fun" as in chow fun) instead. But if one is more accustomed to the Taiwanese style, which doesn't have the chewy blobs and is topped with a ketchupy sauce, then I can understand the issue.

                  I also noticed that Toon Kee sells jars of its sacha sauce. This is another Teochew specialty.

                  For those not familiar with Teochew, this Chinese ethnic/dialect group is also known as Chiu Chau, Chao Chou, Chinjew, Chaozhou, Chao Shan, Chiuchow, Teochiu, or Trieu Chau.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    guess I am not not familiar with Teochew cuisine. need to learn to like that chewy blobs...

                    As far as that translation assignment, it's best left to the many experts on this board. I only know the menus are different by the number of lines and appearance of the characters on wochoy menus. G!

                    1. re: الشره

                      Naw, you tried it and didn't like it. Your palate is the only one that matters. I wish that we had more choices for Teochew cooking available, as it is one of the finest in China. Here's a few more spelling variants: Tiuchiu, Tiochiu, Teo Chew, Chao Chow, or Diojiu.

                      No worries on the menu translations. What I'd actually like to know is what your chow handle means.

      2. Melanie...you are on a roll! Some great places to add to my restaurant list....Irving street rules at this point! Thanks for posting about all these new places...!

        1. Thanks for this rec, Melanie -- it's actually nice to have a different restaurant here because Lam Hoa Thuan just down the street is so similar to (and better than) the old New Hai Ky.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Nancy Berry

            Toon Kee may look different than New Hai Ky with nice uphostered chairs and new carpets, but the printed menu is just about identical. What is different is that I feel that it wants to be more than a noodle and barbecue place that LHT is. The signs on the windows emphasize the set dinners and there are the table cards on each table with the less expensive wo choy menus. The dishes, such as lobster noodles or goose/taro clay pot seem more ambitious than LHT or NHK would have attempted. At LHT, I tried to order the oyster omelet three times and they never had any oysters on hand until the last time I was told it was no longer on the menu. There are still plenty of customers just having a bowl of $5 noodles, but some tables are ordering more.

          2. I had the Oyster Omelette/pancake today...and inch thick(!) and GB&D Golden Brown and Delicious...also had the crispy intestines.....nice people...they had standard roast duck, guitar style roasted duck, soy sauce duck, 5 spice duck and Peking style duck in their takeout BBQ section! The lobster and noodles was a special for $12.95. That will be my next lunch!

            1 Reply
            1. re: ChowFun_derek

              I was on Irving today and popped in to check the price too! Guess I missed you. The oyster omelet is $9.75. Wondrous that it can be that brown and crispy yet not dried out.

              Also noticed that it had a lot of signs up featuring goose. At the barbecue station, roast goose or master sauce goose (poached Teochew style) is $19.50 each. Claypots with either taro or dried bean curd with goose are $8.50. The master sauce goose was already sold out, so I didn't get to buy a half to try.

            2. I had the Lobster Noodles for lunch yesterday...nice sweet and not stringy lobster meat and a mound of chewy lobster flavored noodles,,,some are still in my fridge and I salivate to think of them there...I wonder if they would make a good b'fast!
              I took out a whole duck (Peking style) REALLY flavorful, moist, and rich...with great duck flavor not overcome by excess spice.....

              4 Replies
              1. re: ChowFun_derek

                Noodles of any variety is my favorite breakfast. (G)

                Thanks for the word on the Peking duck. I had noticed the posters, think it runs something like $16?

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  John, Becky and I were there yesterday. We also had the Lobster Noodles -- delicious with lots of nicely cooked lobster, very good al dente flat noodles, and a nicely flavored sauce that had just a little bit too much cornstarch. We also had a bbq plate with roast duck, soy sauce chicken, and char siu. It was good, but not as good as either Happy Bakery or the Cheung Hing on Noriega. And we had the deep-fried shrimp cakes which were excellent, bigger and even better than the ones at Lam Hoa Thuan.

                  And, by the way, I think that the Peking Duck is less expensive than $16. I seem to remember being surprised that it was only about $9.95. according to the sign on the wall.

                  We'll be back.

                  1. re: Nancy Berry

                    I think the $9.95 was for half a Peking duck.

                    Glad to hear about the fried shrimp cakes, another Teochew classic that's hard to find, and even harder to find a good version.

                  2. re: Melanie Wong

                    Yes, I put a couple of eggs on top and downed it this morning...I think the price you mention is correct...I reheated it as per Yimster's instructions at 225 degrees to crisp up the skin, for 1/2 hour ...it released a fair amount of golden 'schmaltz' but the bird itself was still VERY juicy....it was not exactly "Peking Duck" with separated skin....it's called Peking Style....not a lot of spicing so good DUCK flavor predominated...I went to the market on Irving to pick up pancakes and scallions..had Hoison sauce at home and had a mini pig out last night!

                2. This is second-hand info but a friend of a friend knows the new owners of Toon Kee and it is under new management/ownership. I don't know about the change, if any, in the cooking department.