Hong Kong-Style Wontons in Los Angeles
If you ask any immigrant in America what they miss the most from their homeland, you’re likely to hear: family, city life, monuments and of course food. But if you ask any Chinese person from Hong Kong what they miss the most from their homeland, you’re not going to hear all of that. You’re only going to hear one thing: wontons. I don’t know what it is, but if you’re from Hong Kong, you will know what I mean. The Chinese are simply picky about their food, that’s for sure, and they will all claim to have the ultimate palate. This applies to even the poorest of Chinese who will ensure that even their most basic meal of bone soup, meat scraps and day-old vegetables will be as delicious as a meal at an expensive restaurant. This same high-standard applies to wontons, which people from Hong Kong are proud of. All people from Hong Kong will tell you that nothing compares to the wontons in Hong Kong. Wontons are the one thing that can conjure up childhood memories and in some cases, instigate a loud, uncomfortable debate as I have seen happen before. As long as I can remember, my mother has been raving about the high standards in wonton-making in Hong Kong. She reminisces about a time when she could literally walk to any street hawker on the corner for a solid bowl of wonton noodle soup for only $.50. She distinctly remembers the “bite” and “bounce” of each wonton and the slippery, pleasant texture of the thin wonton wrapper. She describes a soup that is full of umami from hours of boiling slightly charred dried flounder, shrimp shells and pork bones. Thin, golden noodles that are by standard, cooked al-dente and require a more powerful bite to break through than your standard egg noodle. But at that time, I wasn’t interested in wontons. I was young and cared for nothing more than a happy meal with a cheap, plastic toy.
It wasn’t until I was 10 years old, that I finally got to experience the one thing that connected my mother to her Hong Kong roots. I remember walking with my family through the labyrinth of Hong Kong’s alleyways, which comprised of shops, restaurants and various businesses. I remember all of the various odors, good, chemical-like and putrid, that filled the streets. The sounds of indistinct chatter and honking taxis. Sensory overload for sure. But once we arrived at the wonton noodle shop, our senses were reset and our attention shifted to what we were about to eat. My parents walked up to the chef who was usually positioned at the front window of the restaurant to attract “window-eaters”. They ordered a few bowls of wontons and like a machine, the cook started making the bowls. At these typical noodle eateries, the window station usually consists of two huge cauldrons of boiling hot water: one to cook the noodles and one to cook wontons, dumplings or fish/beef balls. The flour from the noodle run-off can effect the way a wonton is cooked so there are separate pots. The windows were sometimes a bit foggy from the hot steam and you could barely make out a person cooking behind. The cook quickly grabbed a few strands of noodles and dipped them in one of the pots for no more than 30 seconds and gracefully laid the noodles in a bowl. He then grabbed a few sphere-shaped wontons and threw them in a strainer and dipped the strainer into the other pot of boiling water for no more than 2 mins and shook off the excess water. The steaming wontons were placed in the bowl and topped with a beautiful, dark brown broth and garnished with chopped, yellow chives (gau wong 韭黄) – not scallions. All of this happened in under 5 minutes and cost no more than $2 that time.
Did I forget to mention just how serious and obsessive my mother is with her wontons? We headed back to the table and began to eat. But before I could dig in, I was introduced to my mother’s ritual of wonton-eating that turned a bowl of soup noodles into a 3-dish affair. I watched as she removed all the noodles from the bowl and placed them on a separate plate so that the noodles would not get soggy. She then seasoned the noodles with red vinegar and chili oil. What she was really doing was pushing all the “distractions” such as noodles aside. Now in her bowl, were floating wontons that had about 10 more minutes of existence. Again she grabbed a bottle of red vinegar, dyed the soup red and topped the soup off with a tablespoon of the house-made chili oil. The soup was no longer a dark brown, but a bright red concoction with specks of burnt red chili flakes and tiny pools of orange chili oil. On another plate, she made her “dipping sauce” by adding a few tablespoons of chili oil and again, dousing it with red vinegar. It was completely natural for her to do this with zero hesitation. She would eat a wonton, drink some soup and eat some noodles. Repeating this until the bowl had not a single drop left. I basically copied what she did and enjoyed my first bowl of wontons. It was truly amazing. I would wait another 11 years before my next bowl of Hong Kong wontons and it wasn’t until my most recent visit in 2008 that I really cherished the Hong Kong-style wonton and fully took in what my mother had obsessed over since she left for the United States in 1972. I ate this nearly everyday for 10 days straight.
But what makes a Hong Kong-style wonton versus wontons from Shanghai or Taiwan? Most wontons from Northern China or Taiwan seem to be heavy on pork, maybe even consisting only of pork. They are of course delicious in their own right, but not exactly what I’m looking for. It is easier to find an authentic bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup or Chinese beef noodle soup here in the U.S. than it is to find an authentic bowl of wontons. The Hong Kong wonton is a beautiful marriage of pork and shrimp in a neatly wrapped wonton skin – almost 50/50. The mixture is brought together by corn starch and in some cases, egg whites. It is hand mixed with usually a pair of chopsticks versus an electric mixer. The process of hand mixing also allows air to get incorporated into the filling to create a slight “bounce” in the final cooked product. The longer you mix, the finer the filling is and “bouncier” it is – it is good not to over mix the filling as you don’t want to overwork pizza dough. It is also boiled just long enough for the pork and shrimp to be cooked about 75% through. Inside, there is a nice subtle taste of white pepper and dried flounder-infused juices from the broth. A good cook will know just by looking at the wrapper if the wonton is overcooked. I believe the wonton was first brought down to Southern China from the North in a heavy-on-pork variation. But it was the Chiu Chow Chinese who, with their access to seafood, added the touch of shrimp into the mix. The usage of dried fish or squid in soup is also a critical attribute in Chiu Chow cuisine. Such a simple thing, yet only decades of Chinese culinary technique and experimentation can yield such a beautiful dish.
Naturally, what does one do back home in Los Angeles after eating an amazing bowl of wontons in Hong Kong? He or she searches for something comparable. And almost always, it is a depressing, futile effort. We have an amazing resource/community in Southern California called San Gabriel Valley and it is the largest Chinese enclave in the US. Nowadays, it is also English for “Mainland China”. But even the SGV is lacking in the wonton department – I’ve done my research and even defaulted to my mom for final judgment. Most often times, she responds with a head shake haha.
How to Enjoy Wonton Noodles
I’m not the Noodle Whore for no reason and I owe the “noodle promiscuity” to both my father and mother. I grew up on noodles, I make soup noodles at home, I dream of noodles, eat noodles 3-4 times a week and I will go in peace with a bowl of noodles in my coffin. And I just want to make sure that you enjoy wonton noodles the right way. Totally fine by me if you eat it as is.
Set up your wonton dipping sauce.
Not having dipping sauce is like Chris Tucker said in the movie Friday, “you got ham but no burger”. Or like sushi with no soy sauce and wasabi. In a bowl or plate, add 1 big tablespoon of chili oil and 2 tablespoons of red vinegar. If you see Sriracha, Tapatio or white vinegar on the table, leave right away – it’s a wonton imposter!
Ordering your noodles.
I can’t stand it when noodles or pasta are overcooked. It’s the rain on a parade. It’s the 3rd wheel/best friend that interrupts your hot date night. Always let the server know that you want your noodles “chewier or harder”. The Japanese are so technical that they even allow you to specify your noodle texture in ramen (Shin Sen Gumi). So why not do the same with your wontons? In Cantonese Chinese, you can say “meen yiew song dee“ which literally means “I’d like my noodles chewier”. In Mandarin Chinese, you can say “mian yao QQ yi dian“ which literally means “I’d like my noodles a bit more chewy”. “QQ” (pronounced keew-keew) is a term used to signify chewiness, especially in Mainland and Taiwanese cuisine. Trust me, this makes all the difference.
Customizing your broth.
If you ever use soy sauce in your soup, my mother might come busting through the walls like the Kool-Aid Man on a pound of heroine and spank you silly with a feather duster. If you have to use soy sauce in your wonton noodles, you’re probably at a bastardized Chinese place. Again, get up quietly and leave. Really the only thing I suggest for your soup is a little white pepper, red vinegar and some chili oil. Resist the Sriracha, please!
Eat your wontons right away.
While I was shooting the food for this posting, I probably delayed eating for nearly 3 minutes. If the soup is piping hot, 3 minutes is more than enough time for your noodles to go to Soggytown. And it really sucks. Wontons don’t have much of a threshold for sogginess, so eat them right away for “premium fantasy”.
Wontons with or without soup?
At most places you can order your wontons in soup or what we say in Cantonese Chinese, “gon low“, which literally means “dry mixed”. Usually, if you order it this way, you get a dollop of oyster sauce on the noodles and eat the wontons naked. I was never into this style of wontons and definitely prefer the watery version. To me wontons and oyster sauce are like rival gangs.
Wontons and wonton-like objects in Los Angeles
Until Cathay Pacific offers a reasonable price for a roundtrip ticket to Hong Kong, you might have to settle with these places. I’ve given up trying to find the ultimate wonton shop but have found some places definitely worth checking out or not. Here are my thoughts on a few Los Angeles wonton eateries.
Noodle Boy, Rosemead.
You may have had Chef Andrew Yu’s wontons before if you’ve eaten at Wonton Time. A few years ago, it closed and since then been replaced by yet another permutation of a wonton noodle shop called The Congee. Yu has re-opened in the back of a strip mall in Rosemead. One look at Chef Yu’s short spiky hair with pig tail and I knew he was from Hong Kong – it’s the standard young-guy hairstyle in Hong Kong. That haircut may not get you the ladies but at least you exude authenticity. But haircut aside, Yu definitely makes a solid bowl of wonton noodles. When I first walked in, I was hit with the overpowering smell of dried flounder in the broth – a great sign. The clientele were surely Cantonese-Chinese people and almost all were eating wonton noodles. Another good sign is old Chinese people dining as they are THE most picky and experienced of all Chinese, self-appointed food critics. Yu’s soup is solid and absolutely delicious. The noodles are cooked al dente. The only thing I don’t understand is the wonton itself. It is massive and almost 100% made of shrimp – like 3-4 pieces of shrimp inside. Yu cooks it beautifully with a good amount of bite but the wonton ratio itself is off as there needs to be some pork. Still, this place may be the best in SGV.
The Congee, Alhambra.
This was formerly known as Wonton Time, Chef Yu’s previous wonton noodle shop. Before Yu re-surfaced, this was the prime location for wontons. Unfortunately this place is pretty average, but still better than places like Sam Woo. They also serve massive wontons like Noodle Boy. The soup doesn’t really have that dried flounder taste.
Noodle Bistro, San Gabriel – CLOSED.
My mom had introduced this to me and told me that it was “okay”, which I took to mean that it was actually good. The first time I went there with my mom and ordered up. The waitress saw how particular she was in her requests and made sure the chef was aware that he was about to cook wontons for the Chinese version of Tom Colicchio. And it was great, everything was on point. But something happened a few months later as I returned. My mom not being there, a chef change, an overall bad day? It wasn’t good at all. The wontons were heavy on pork and even had a really thick, dark-yellow siu mai-like wrapper – not normal. Well, you couldn’t try this anyway since it’s now closed.
Happy Harbor, Alhambra
Upon walking in to this place, I immediately thought I was in Hong Kong. The staff, clientele and decor exuded “Hong Kong”. Most of the diners were eating steamed rice rolls (cheung fun), porridge and Chinese donuts. Although wonton noodles are on the menu, it didn’t seem to be the main hit here. I went ahead and tried it anyway. Looking at it, it looked promising. The soup was OK but missed that seafood umami note. The wontons were nice in size with a decent amount of pork and shrimp but again something was missing. It wasn’t bad nor was it memorable. I’d go with Noodle Boy again.
Wonton Forest, City of Industry – CLOSED.
I never got to try this before it closed last year. But I had heard from many people that it was decent. Looking at photos of the wontons itself on blogs, I can tell the mixture of pork and shrimp seems right on but of course, it comes down to the taste. Fans of Wonton Forest, I’d like to hear your eulogy.
Harlam’s Kitchen, Rosemead.
Tucked inside a supermarket food court is Harlam’s Kitchen. When I first saw this, I was stoked that the word “wonton” was in the Chinese business name. But this place was a little bit better than Sam Woo. Simply put, there wasn’t much love put in it.
Hong Kong Cafes and Sam Woo-Like Restaurants, SGV.
Like Chinese beef noodle soup, wontons are a common staple in Hong Kong Western-style cafes and Sam Woo-like restaurants. The menus are so extensive that it really is impossible for the cooks to ensure quality in every dish. To me, these are the coldest, heart-less bowls of wontons. Soggy wontons, soggy noodles and universal chicken broth. At these establishments, speed is the essence, not quality. If there is a particular cafe you know of, I’d be up to trying it out.
Vietnamese and Chiu Chow Chinese Restaurants
Yes, the Chiu Chow Chinese had a lot to do with the Hong Kong-style wonton but like Sam Woo, these restaurants feature so many different things on their menu and it simply isn’t their forté like beef or fish ball soup noodles are. Vietnamese restaurants that serve “hu tieu wonton” are simply offering their version of the Chiu Chow wonton. In these establishments, they love using the dark, yellow wrappers and the wonton fillings seem to be heavy on pork and black pepper. Still tasty of course!
New Dragon Chinese Restaurant, Chinatown.
But then God shined his rays on a tiny, hole-in-the-wall called New Dragon Chinese Restaurant. In my continuous search for food in the wasteland of bastardized Chinese restaurants and tourist knick-knack shops known as Chinatown, I was lucky to stumble across this place. It’s true that if you look hard enough, you can find things and I think I’ve definitely found some hidden gems like my former favorite, New Kamara, Buu Dien, Mien Nghia and Hoan Kiem. The thing is, I wouldn’t have found this if I didn’t know how to read Chinese as the English name has nothing to do with the Chinese name. It may be the New Dragon Chinese restaurant to you, but to Chinese people it is known literally as “Wonton Dynasty”. I drove by one day and decided to give it a shot since the name itself was a bold statement.
I’ll admit I wasn’t interested once I stepped into the restaurant. Bad decor, a lot of jurors are on their lunch break, color photos of beef & broccoli on the wall and a fish tank with two puny, sickly lobsters. If I asked the waitress in English what she recommended, she probably would have suggested beef & broccoli. But instead, I asked in Chinese and she responded with, “wonton noodles”. You may not know this, but some restaurants will suggest dishes to you based on your ethnicity – they’re judgmental like that haha. “Wonton noodles, noodles extra chewy please,” I said. I learned that the chef is originally from Guangzhou, China and moved to Hong Kong to become a chef. Chef Lau moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and has been cooking in various kitchens throughout Los Angeles.
And finally, my wonton noodles arrived. Looking at it, the dish looked awesome. I liked that the wontons weren’t massive. Though they were not the typical sphere-shape, I was liking this guerilla, unconventional style of wrapping wontons. The soup was piping hot and the noodles were cooked as ordered. I first tried the soup and it was excellent, with Noodle Boy’s slightly better. A great hint of the dried flounder, not too salty and not too sweet. And then I bit into the wontons… although they weren’t as authentic looking as Noodle Boy’s, the taste was quite similar to that I’ve had in Hong Kong. The wontons were small in comparison to Noodle Boy’s, but the ratio of pork and shrimp was good and had a nice “bite” to it. And most importantly, there was that perfect amount of dried flounder taste and white pepper. There was no overpowering taste of ground pork for once. The skins itself were so slippery and toothsome. And I really enjoyed this.
And I leave you with a ridiculously large, extreme close-up of the wonton in hopes that you’ll get up soon to go try this. Look, even the wonton shed a tear because it will never be a real-deal Hong Kong wonton. To date, I think I’ve been here at least 20 times and have gotten a dozen friends into it. But I’m afraid to send my mom here as I know what she’ll say – “it’s not like Hong Kong”. Though some days Chef Lau is on, sometimes he’s off. Sometimes there’s another cook making my wontons because I can see Chef Lau reading his newspaper. And almost always, the other cooks are overcooking the noodles so make sure you request chewy noodles. But overall, this is what I’ve come to like because like many other Hong Kongers, we yearn for the real thing which we can’t get. So until my next trip to Hong Kong, this will do. Give New Dragon a shot and enjoy these comforting, almost-Hong Kong-but-not-really wontons. Oh yeah, order a plate of garlic Morning glory, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce or pea sprouts with fermented fish sauce. Chef Lau is a very good cook and if I’m not in the mood to drive to SGV for Cantonese food, this definitely does the trick over Full House and Master Chef. Thanks for reading.
New Dragon Chinese Restaurant
924 N Hill St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Monday – Sunday 10 am – 10 pm
Credit cards are amazingly accepted