Wonton Noodle Soup - SF Dish of the Month (April 2013)
Voting this month was close, and the winner by a nose was Cantonese Wonton Noodle Soup.
The goal of Dish of the Month is to collectively try as many versions of wonton noodle soup as possible during the month of April! So let's start exploring and eating—report back with reviews and photos.
For those who regularly eat wonton noodle soup in the Bay Area, hopefully this project can lead to a new favorite version, and for those who don't usually seek it out, hopefully this will be an excuse to go out and try some!
Here's a link to the vote: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/896278
There are two restaurants who make Won Ton Soup that I enjoy:
1. Yuet Lee - 1300 Stockton St San Francisco
2. Gum Wah - 345 8th St Oakland
Both have a good flavorful broth and have shrimp-bases wontons. Each costs about $6-$7 with a meat included. I like the BBQ pork Soup at Yuet Lee and the Roasted Duck at Gum Wah.
re: Bob Copeland
Curious to know if your Gum Wah outings have been recent. My last outing there (October) was not good, and I didn't see familiar faces in the shop which made me wonder if an ownership change had happened. Broth tasted one dimensional and the wonton innards tasted old. It used to be my go to spot for WTS. FWIW I have yet to eat a bowl of WTS in the BA that tastes like the HK bowls, which really lean toward the tilefish/shrimp for savoriness.
I sampled my first wonton noodle soup of the month nearby, at Thanh Ky at 659 E 12th St, Oakland. Rather than Hong Kong style it is a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant. The "house special wonton noodle soup" comes with fishballs, beefballs, fishcake, shrimp, ground pork, and pieces of chicken and pork, in addition to noodles, wontons, and scallions.
The broth looked paler than I was expecting, with the usual amount of fat on the top. It was more flavorful than I was expecting from the color, though definitely chicken-forward rather than complex, but good. The noodles were the best part about the dish--thin, yet firm and easily separated. The wontons were decent--mostly shrimp, but not in large pieces.
I'll definitely go back based on the quality of the broth and noodles, but will likely order something else, as I felt the additions detracted from my ideal wonton soup. It was relatively busy mid-afternoon, and other tables seemed split between noodle soups and rice plates with fried/roasted chicken/duck.
re: Bob Copeland
I remembered the first time I had wonton noodles at Gum Wah - they served me the "normal" (i.e. American) portion which was humongous compared to those I'm used to back in Singapore or Hong Kong.
I could only finish half of it, and mentioned about the serving size to the proprietress when I was paying my bill. She said, "Oh, you should have mentioned you wanted the *Chinese* version, we can do that for you." :-D
From Charles Vu's post on the Hong Kong board:
'The evaluation criteria was provided to me by a real local Chinese food connoisseur. He told me the ultimate won-ton noodle should comprise of perfection in the following four components. The broth, the noodle, the won-ton and finally the condiments.
The broth should be made from prawn shells, chicken and pork bones, dried tile fish, shrimp eggs and dried buddha fruit.
The noodle strand should be as thin as a thread and cooked just below 'al-dente'.
The won-ton should comprised of crunchy fresh prawns wrapped in paper thin wrapping skin. The cooked noodle, before being placed in the bowl, should be dressed and drizzled with a few drops of lard.
Finally, the end product should be sprinkled with finely chopped yellow chives and shrimp eggs.'
For the wonton, K K's post on the Hong Kong board:
'....the most traditional way where the wrapping (and cooking) make the wontons look like goldfish, where the excess skin spreads like goldfish tails...There are those who take this smooth goldfish tail eating experience into account and prefer it to the golf ball sized won tons that don't have the tails.'
For the garnish- its traditionally chives, but some prefer green onions to chives.
Thanks for posting the descriptions of the platonic ideal for Hong Kong-style/Cantonese won ton noodle soup. Since you nominated the winning entry for dish of the month, then this is what we should be trying to find.
Over the last 10+ years, from time to time, we have taken up the hunt for this dish. I think the hardest part to duplicate is the see-through broth, tinted orange from the dried tilefish and shrimp shells. To give folks an idea of what we're looking for in stock color, here's a photo of the version at the (now closed) W and M Cafe in Fremont. The wontons were wrapped in the golf ball style and green onions on top rather than yellow chives. This briny broth perhaps came the closest in the Bay Area at the time.
Then to show the swallow tails or goldfish tails, this example from SF's King Won Ton is a little tattered, but gives an idea and is topped with the yellow chives. King Won Ton achieves the best noodle texture when the bamboo pole-made noodles are available and cooked properly, but can be quite inconsistent. But if you hit it right, this would be the place to learn about the noodle component even if the other parts fall short.
So, we're not talking the giant Shanghainese wontons, spicy Sichuan wontons, hearty war wontons topped with everything but the kitchen sink, nor the ubiquitous pork-filled type readily found at nearly every Chinese-American place. It's going to take some good chowhound sleuthing to find the HK-style, let alone a good example. I expect that we'll be kissing a lot of "frogs" along the hunt, but let's please post about those poseurs too along the way as sign posts of what to avoid.
More wonton background discussions
Quick answer, no.
Something to note
柴魚片 where 片 means slices or flakes, 柴魚片 is Taiwanese Chinese reference to shaved bonito flakes (aka katsuoboshi in Japan and TW). This is consufing, because 柴魚 in this case, is stock fish, which is type of dried unsalted cod.
Actually now that I've done a little research, I am not sure if "dried tilefish" is the correct translation. In Hong Kong the wonton noodle broths use a dried version of a fish known as 大地魚 as written in Cantonese Chinese (big land fish)...at least 大地魚 is the right term . It is actually synonymous with 比目魚 which is a flatfish (of this category, halbut, turbot, sole, plaice, and flounders are themed as such), and is also known as 撻沙魚 (Taat Sa Yue) in some local markets that sell dried seafood.
So I'm inclined to believe that now the "dried tilefish" is a misnomer. If you look at a receipe like this: http://magazine.fourseasons.com/trave...
which calls for a flatfish (instead of tilefish)....the good thing is that the fish can be grilled then grinded to a powder to be used into the broth (versus a sun dried specimen).
As far as exactly what type of flatfish is typically used in won ton noodle broth, it is looking more to be either halibut or flounder.
Small square pieces of the dried fish is also used to stir fry with Chinese broccoli (gai lan) at Chiu Chow restaurants in Hong Kong and is quite the flavor enhancer. But there they call it 方魚 (Fong Yue) instead. More confusion, but perhaps the "Fong" is in reference to the squarish cuts?
Of course Charles is more than welcome to correct me on this if there's more updated information.
re: K K
Yes, stock fish is an unsalted white fish, often cod.
I've been confused by the term tilefish as well. I wonder if it refers to a style of flattening and drying. At Lotus of Siam early on, I was served a soup by the owner that has now made its way onto the menu. The taste was vaguely familiar and I was told that it was smoked sheet fish, that's pounded flat, dried and smoked, and used in Cambodian and southern Chinese cooking.
Long ago, in this thread, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4072..., Wai Bong posted: "...I especially like the broth which has a stronger hint of the "jaw hou yu" flavor(translated literally as "left mouth fish" aka dried flounder)than the soups at other wonton places that I've tried. Jaw Hou Yu is typically added to the chicken stock to give the wonton soup its distintive taste."
re: Melanie Wong
Yes jaw hou yu 左口魚 is halibut, just more fancy names to confuse people...it's also what some Hong Kong bloggers use to casually name the fish instead of "hirame" at their local sushi bar.
Now right mouth fish 右口魚 is a little confusing. Some say it's "right eyed flounders", but if used in a sushi bar setting in Hong Kong, it's referring to karei (which is a flounder), and really high end quality karei is normally "mako-garei" in enunciation, particularly at the Michelin star'd sushi restaurant in Japan...but that's another topic.
I suppose "flat as a tile" to mean tilefish, versus the non flat tilefish (other definition) could be a possibility...
My mom makes her wonton broth with 大地魚. It doesn't come in a package, or pre ground. She buys the dry fish whole from chinese dry seafood store, it's about the size of a small plate. She toasts it over the stove (she has an electric range) ...but be careful because fat drips from the fish. She puts it in the soup whole (but don't serve it).
I have a picture of it somewhere (probably on my tablet at home) that I will upload. I took a picture of one when a friend of mine ask for info on my mom's wonton soup secret ingredient. My friend was able to find it by asking for it at one of the Chinese dry seafood stores in Chinatown.
Joy Luck Bistro also uses 大地魚 flatfish in their broth. i went there to get a bowl, and its the best among all the other places I tried so far this month in the south bay (not been to Cooking Papa yet this month).
The broth had a distinct fishiness to it and likely had a pork base as well. it was quite nice. the wontons (6) had good size fresh shrimps mixed with just the right amount of pork to provide a great texture. size was medium, not tiny, not huge. the noodle was al dente. also some 'yu choy' as garnish.
the bowl had some misses, however. i was eating and staring at the bowl and wondering what was missing. it then dawned on me that it had neither chives nor scallions. no wonder it just looked off.
the amount of noodle was also on the smallish side. i finished the noodle and still had 3 wontons left.
while i was paying i asked the chefs whether they added fish to the broth and one of them asked me whether i was allergic to 大地魚 (flatfish). so i guess that's what went into their broth.
$6 a bowl. I don't even know how the 99 in the same plaza can justify selling theirs at $5.3 a bowl at much lower quality.
I had a chance to eat the same dish at Joy Luck Bistro both this week and last. Last week's version was at the same level of quality as the version posted above, though with the addition of yellow chives.
This week's version was a major disappointment- wonton was mostly pork with some super tiny fragments of shrimp stirred in, and the pork texture was so hard that i wonder what they put in there. the broth was *very* salty. its the same two person manning the congee/ noodle station so i really don't know what happened to the quality control this week.
The link to Charles Yu's post is a great lengthy informative discussion about won ton noodles and how they should be.
The evaluation criteria (for HK) is actually missing one component but I'll rephrase it according to another source to make it more complete.
The classical traditional and old style authentic won ton noodle soup is actually a very small snack sized serving as it was originally intended. The size of the bowl would almost be the equivalent of that of a Cantonese Chinese banquet soup bowl (e.g. shark fin soup).
wontons - obviously fresh shrimp and some quality pork is important. A good ratio is maybe 70% shrimp, and 30% pork. Visually these would be wrapped with excess skin tightly, so that any slack once boiled would look like silky smooth long goldfish tails fluttering about and scattering in the water. A large number of won ton noodle restaurants in HK don't do much slack anymore, unfortunately becoming the norm, and even a little slack is better than nothing.
noodles - it is not a crucial requirement anymore that the noodles are kneaded via bamboo pole since it is a dying art in Hong Kong and nobody wants to take up this old time craft...but it does provide a delightful bite and slight crunch (a really wonderful texture). Many restaurants use machine made noodles...but so long as the noodle has bite, ideally made with duck eggs, thin strands like golden threads, and fresh, it can really enhance the experience.
broth - a very critical component...Charles pretty much described what goes in it, but I am not 100% sure about Buddha fruit...but dried tilefish, shrimp shells, and shrimp roe (typically added for individual bowls) are important components, either added to a stock of chicken or pork bones. Just a bit of a background, there are two schools of won ton noodles in HK...the old school way as I just described it, and the new school way are larger golf ball sized wontons to satisfy those who prefer quantity and value (since a small tiny bowl, even if quality, is deemed expensive at $4 to $5 a bowl). The new school way was popularized by the likes of Tsim Chai Kee (and maybe Chee Kee), where instead of either dried tilefish or shrimp shells/shrimp roe, Buddha fruit is used instead for creating the sweetness. Obviously the new school way has its fans, but is not the traditional/classic version.
As far as the plating (or bowl-ing) goes, a chef in HK at a specialist restaurant would basically take a portion of noodles, and immerse it in boiling water for about 20 seconds, rinse it in cold water and drain. The wontons are cooked first then drained of excess water, and placed first onto a bowl (where a Chinese soup spoon is first placed in the empty bowl). Followed by a few drops or drizzling of a little bit of lard. The cooked noodles then are placed on top covering the wontons, and finally broth is added last, and the whole thing delivered to the table. This is to minimize the time the noodles are soaking in the broth (thus losing its texture and bite).
With that said, after Charles recently visited Hong Kong and left disappointed with a large numer of won ton noodle shops (even one or two that tried to adhere to the above standards but just happened to execute horribly), the takeaway is that
1) traditional style HK won ton noodles is even a rare commodity in HK, especially in consistent quality.
2) You are lucky if you get 1.5 out of 3 components nailed down or close to it. And this is not taking into account excess skin slack or whether the spoon is pre-positioned at the bottom of the bowl. 2 out of 3 right is already exceeding expectations in some parts.
3) Anything over there even in some level of mediocrity, is better than what we have here.
re: K K
interesting background about the noodle bowl size. i remember from 8, 9 years ago at Hon's (across the street from R&G) where they served tiny bowl of won ton noodle at a lower price point. i did not know why the bowl was so small at the time. but i went there often for snacks when i worked a block away.
for the broth, i think many noodle houses use the same broth for all noodle types. so they don't necessarily use the ingredients that are supposed to be more specific to the wonton soup itself.
for SF area wonton, I'd settle for good shrimp/pork wonton with nice skin, al dente noodle, a good broth that doesn't taste like salt. I don't think I ever ate an ideal bowl of wonton noodle even while in Hong Kong. but wonton noodle being the comfort food that it is, I'd settle for a good bowl, or even a decent bowl when I am really craving it.
Another source I found on the net, describes it like this and is perhaps more accurate with regards to the explanation.
The wontons go in the bowl first. Then the spoon goes on top of them. then the cooked noodles on top of that, drizzle of lard, then the broth, followed by the additional of young yellow chives. The wontons can soak in broth as long as needed, but the noodles should not as it loses its texture and bite, and the spoon between the noodles and wontons acts as a separator and minimizes full contact of noodles with broth.
As far as the 70% shrimp and 30% pork (mix of fatty and lean) that is an optimal ratio that gives the best balance in overall taste and flavor (and also time tested). et broth where the shrimp shells are crucial to the receipe.
re: K K
KK, thank you for doing so much research. Wondering if I could pick your brain (and more experienced palate) for places where you might already have tried the wonton mein. And let's hear from others too about any that we can count out of the running. We'll set the bar at decent/good for Northern California.
I know you like Cooking Papa, how about any of these?
Broadway Bistro, Millbrae
Chu Kong, Millbrae
Fat Wong's, San Bruno
Tai Wu, Daly City
Joy Luck Palace, Cupertino
Win's, San Francisco
Hong Kong Saigon Seafood Harbor, Sunnyvale or Richmond
Great Eastern, San Francisco
Lychee Cafe, San Francisco
Utopia Cafe, San Francisco
Lai Hong Lounge, San Francisco
Should we be seeking out cha chaan teng's such as ABC Bakery that caryjones recco'd? Coming up with the list above off the top of my head, I was struck by the fact that we don't really have that many noodle/jook places. The dim sum houses and seafood specialists seem like overkill.
re: Melanie Wong
I'll post some more recent experiences at different places in a bit but I'll comment on the following:
Cooking Papa - the best part of the bowl is the broth, where you can actually taste the dried flatfish flavor and might just be the best broth I've had so far. Inconsistent batch but basically the darker the broth, the better. Noodles I dislike (not much of a bite and no egg flavor) which are better for stir fry purposes, and wontons are inconsistent (some pieces have shrimp, others seem to have more pork).
Fat Wong's - wontons are very big (golf ball sized). Portion wise this is fulfilling, almost like Cooking Papa's but the broth is not close. Noodles maybe a tiny notch better than CP but I'd rather have CP's for the broth.
Tai Wu - the rice plate/roasties shop? Not a place where I would want to try it
JLP Cupertino (bistro) - I will try it possibly next week but will keep expectations in check. Cha siu and roast duck are pretty decent here.
Win's (never been). Saigon Seafood Harbor (Sunnyvale) might be a good place to try it. HK Bistro (Mountain View) uses primarily pork in their wontons and the broth, while not as good as CP's, is ok (and could be cubed powder essence enhanced) but don't expect much otherwise. Don't know anything about the dim sum restaurants.
Getting Cantonese shui gow is probably a bit more pleasurable overall.
I've seen Tak Kee Lee on Noriega wrap fresh wontons at one point, but it was probably for the quota for the rest of the day. The key is probably getting them fresh right when they are done wrapping (as with any other place).
Champagne Bistro (now gone) had some decent visually correct wontons (with some light scattering tails), but noodles and broth not to my liking.
Hon's Won Ton House (SF) - perfect snack sized bowl and only place in town that does so. Noodles are made in house but unfortunately has this rubberband like color and virtually eggless flavor that doesn't come out right (maybe receipe changed?). On a morning visit a woman was wrapping wontons, and I have to say they are so far the best I've had, perfect bite sized and decent shrimp flavor, and for that an extra point for being able to eat this past 9 am. Broth nothing interesting sadly.
Best pork wonton I've had so far, not Cantonese, is Tai Kee in San Jose (a branch of the one in Hualien, Eastern Taiwan). The skin receipe is second to none...lots of excess slack, and slippery smooth too. Too bad their skin is whiter (less or no eggs), and no shrimp.
Best noodles....hate to say this but maybe King of Won Ton...but the problem is that the kitchen tends to mess it up. Either overcooked when immersing in boiling water, maybe not cooled with cold water and draining, or soaked for too long. Or if you order lo mein, it's too wet from any sauces (e.g. beef brisket or beef tendon) that it becomes limp. Even then it lacks the eggy-ness, but the thinness is there and the bite they could bring out a bit if they treated it right in the kitchen... The wontons I had recently with lo mein, and the ratio was not 70/30. The side of broth was ok, at least more concentrated than a noodle soup bowl. Might get better mileage with a more eggy Vietnamese Chinese style noodle...
re: K K
Went to Top Cafe in Cupertino today and had the 'afternoon snack' size wonton dish. Came with a smaller bowl, and a drink at about $5.
Bowl had 4 wonton in it. About 60% pork. Shrimp was on the smallish side but had a bouncy texture. could use a bit more shrimp for a better texture.
Broth was on the salty side, no msg, tasted fine. Noodle was undercooked a bit, but I would take that vs overlooked noodle.
A few pieces of lettuces which I thought was a bit odd as a combo. Also some green onion.
Took about 15 minutes for noodle to come out, which was longer than expected. Maybe they had to make the wonton?
Overall, not the best but ok for the bay area. If I am hungry and passing by on my commute I'd go there again, especially since this is a nice snack size and is quite reasonably priced.
Next up, either one of venus cafe, cooking papa, or jlp bistro.
I'd add a place that is not necessarily the best place to get wonton. Its the 99 ranch in cupertino. i went there recently because its along the commute route.
noodle had a nice bounce. wonton had shrimp and some filler thing that tasted like flour. not very certain what made up the broth. Might have some pork bones and salt. on top, bok choy was added along with some green onion.
overall, they can do better.
re: Melanie Wong
Looks nice. No noodles?
This SF Dish of the Month is spurring me to try out wonton noodle options in London (am off there again this weekend). Catching up with my fellow Singaporean CH, limster - we did a London "dim sum" face-off (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/878337) , and a Cantonese roast duck chowdown (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/828315) during my last visit late last year. Sounds like a wonton noodle crawl thru London is in order this time :-D
Hey, limster's mine!
Found my receipt for Cooking Papa . . . that was shrimp wonton noodle soup (as I'd typically order). They're hiding. The tall-sided bowl in attractive, but not that easy to eat from.
Please feel free to ping Charles and ask him to join our discussion on this board.