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 -
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
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” -
Bourdain Bamboo Noodle-maker segment video -
King Won Ton
1936 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122