Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Taste Off: Roasted Duck Won Ton Noodles in Oakland

I’ve talked a bit about my love for any kind of soup noodles — from Vietnamese pho to Japanese ramen or udon. But growing up in a Chinese family in Hawaii, my very first soup noodle was the won ton mein.

And not just any kind of won ton mein. Whenever I ordered these thin, springy noodles with the folded dumplings, I always would have them topped with roasted duck. Who wouldn’t?

My childhood memories of succulent duck with dumpling noodles made me venture out into Chinatown recently in my town Oakland to find out who made the best bowl of roasted duck won ton noodles. So over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting lunch in Chinatown — slurping noodles, savoring dumplings and chewing on a lot of fatty duck skin. (Because of my cholesterol, I had to limit my taste off to one roasted duck won ton noodle soup a week.)

The following is a recap of the places I visited, applying my five-star scale to three categories: noodles (got to be thin and springy), won ton (shaped well and not dense) and roasted duck (lots of flavor and crispy skin).

I chose the places to visit by one simple rule: they had to have roasted duck hanging in their window. Lots of restaurants offer won ton noodles, but not all of them serve it with roasted duck. You get this mostly in the dedicated noodle shops or the restaurants with a BBQ counter, with the butcher chopping up roasted ducks, soy sauce chicken or roasted pork.

Here are the contenders, in alphabetical order:

Best Taste Restaurant, 814 Franklin St. (between 8th and 9th Sts.), PH: 510.444.4983. Cash only.

Cost: $4.75 ($5.25 with tax)

Noodles (3.5 stars): The lightest color of all the places I tried, but still nice and thin. Had an odd texture on the outside, like it wasn’t rinsed thoroughly. Decent taste.

Won ton (2 stars): Six dumplings that were huge with a tail likely from excess won ton wrappers. Primarily pork with just a bit of shrimp, sometimes no shrimp.

Duck (3 stars): Not the largest amount but decent with a few choice pieces of meat. Coloring somewhere in the middle, not charred but not light.

Funny how Chinese restaurants have names that make a lot of claims like “No. 1 noodle shop” or in this case “Best Taste.” I stumbled onto this place walking around, and it has a real local feel. Brightly lit with no-nonsense food, Best Taste had some nice servers who were pleasant. I also liked how they served the won ton noodle soup with a bit of greens (in their case, green cabbage).

Overall grade: 3 stars

Café 88, 388 9th St. (near Franklin), ground level of the Chinatown mall, PH: 510.844.0651. Cash only.

Cost: $5.50 ($6.04 w/tax)

Noodles (4 stars): Thin, but not hairline. Nice yellow color with some pull.

Won ton (3.5 stars): Only three dumplings, but thin skin and nice balance between pork and shrimp. The shrimp tasted really fresh, and overall had a nice sweet flavor.

Duck (4 stars): Served on the side, it was brought to table separately by the roasting station people. Nice variety of leg and breast meat, and great thin skin with caramel red color.

Café 88 is one of the newer noodle shops in Chinatown, with a clean, contemporary décor. It’s right next door to Gum Kuo (see below) so I bet there’s a bit of competition between the two. Both serve top-notch won ton noodles, slightly different in taste and style. But I think you can’t go wrong with either one. Because of its contemporary feel, Café 88 has a lot of young servers — some of whom can be standoffish like they could care less.

Overall: 4 stars

Gum Kuo, 388 9th St. (near Franklin), ground level of the Chinatown mall, PH: 510.268.1288. Cash only.

Cost: $6.85 (tax included)

Noodles (4 stars): Thin, firm and nice. Bit on the dark color, though.

Won ton (3 stars): Round and filled with whole shrimp and pork. Pork seemed liked dark meat and a bit dense.

Duck (3.25 stars): Tasty skin, not much meat, nice anise flavor, one or two pieces were on the salty side.

Gum Kuo is probably one of the more well-known, long-running noodle shops, right in the Chinatown pavilion in Oakland. The atmosphere is like what I think a Hong Kong noodle shop would be, with workers speaking Chinese and patrons sometimes sharing tables. While Gum Kuo’s won ton noodle soup had a light broth that was slightly sweet, I do have my suspicions on whether they add MSG to the broth because I felt anxious afterwards.

Overall: 3.5 stars

Gum Wah, 345 8th St. (between Harrison and Webster Sts.), PH: 510.834.3103. Credit cards accepted.

Cost: $5.95 ($6.55 with tax)

Noodles (2.5 stars): Thin but darker in color, like wheat. The bowl was so big that it looked like a small portion of noodles, but it turned out to be enough. Not as springy as I would like.

Won ton (1.5 stars): Six dumplings that had meat that was oddly dark with some slight red or orange color. It was almost like mystery meat. One won ton came broken with the shrimp falling out.

Duck (4 stars): Shiny crispy skin with a lot of flavor, but only a few choice meat pieces — mostly fat and bones. Still, good flavor.

Lots of Chinese restaurants have the word “gum” in it because it means gold, and the Chinese love the idea of getting rich or prosperous. At Gum Wah, across Chinatown from Gum Kuo, the place doesn’t conjure up the thought of shiny gold pieces. Instead, it’s a bit dingy. As for the food, they offered a big bowl of duck, won ton and noodles that I thought was the most beautifully presented of all the places I’ve tried. I think it was the use of bok choy as the greens, giving the whole bowl a marbled, rustic look. The broth also had an interesting taste to it, almost like a pinch of sugar or just really good broken down bone marrow.

Overall grade: 2.5 stars

New Gold Medal, 389 8th St. (between Franklin and Webster Sts.), PH: 510.465.1940. Credit cards accepted.

Cost: $6.25 ($6.86 with tax)

Noodles (3 stars): Thin but on the dark yellow side, a bit softer than others I’ve tried and not much taste.

Won ton (4 stars): Five seur gow-style dumplings that were evenly round and shaped with good taste and large pieces of shrimp.

Duck (3.75 stars): Not the most pieces but choice cuts, including leg and some fatty pieces. Nice flavor, but a bit chewy.

New Gold Medal looks like a large place, with the restaurant divided between the dining area and the roasting counter, where you can buy take out. The broth is really light, almost bland, so it’s good for those who don’t like salty broth or ones with MSG. They included some green cabbage which is always nice. The menu also has a large selection of other items beyond noodles.

Overall grade: 3.75 stars

Yung Kee, 888 Webster St. (at 9th). PH: 510.839.2010. Cash only.

Cost: $6.50 (tax included)

Noodles (3 stars): Not as thin as others, but still nice color and cooked with right pull and give. Not soft or hard.

Won ton (2.5 stars): Five dumplings that were on the big side because of the dense pork used. Only small shrimp piece can be found.

Duck (2.5 stars): Large serving of duck, including thigh portion, but skin not crispy and pale colored and average in taste.

One of the oldest noodle shops, Yung Kee really shows it. It looks tired and dingy, but maybe that’s the charm? This is really like won ton noodles for the working man because there’s no concern about presentation, like how they don’t give you an extra plate to put your duck bones (I ended up just leaving it in my soup, which can be messy as you wade through to find which pieces you didn’t eat.)

Overall: 2.5 stars

Some won ton mein trivia:

The shape of it: Won ton is a really homey dish because mothers make it all the time at home (I’m talking the old generation, not so much now). I even made a video demonstrating how easy it is to fold the square wrappers into a coin-looking dumpling. But sometimes you might see a dumpling that looks like a ball with crinkling skin wrapped around. This is actually known as “seur gow” and is made using a round-shaped wrapper. I don’t really know what’s the difference, other than the shape of the wrapper, but I find most restaurants make the easier “seur gow” shaped dumplings but they still call them won ton.

Duck dialects: In Hawaii, the Cantonese speakers in Chinatown called roasted duck “siu gnap,” which literally translates to mean “burn duck.” When I first came to San Francisco, I ordered “siu gnap won ton mein,” and I would get some weird looks. Then they’d say, “foh gnap won ton mein.” “Foh gnap” (I’m using phonetics to spell here) is their common Cantonese dialect to say roasted duck. It literally translates to mean “fire duck,” which I kind of like now because it makes me think it’s fire-roasted duck.

So now that you know a bit more about roasted duck won ton noodles, go out and try a bowl and tell me where’s your favorite. I was thinking of doing a taste off comparing San Francisco places (which probably have better duck and noodles), but their Chinatown is spread out basically all over the city and would take several months of me going around town trying them out. But if you want me to do a San Francisco version, let me know because you know I’ll suffer through it for you guys! ;-)


Hungry Dog said...

Single Guy--I love this post. First of all, how brave and noble of you to undertake such a project for our edification! I might have to copy cat and do it myself. I LOVE duck wonton noodle soup. I mean, duck, wonton, and noodles are three of my favorite things! I fully support you doing a SF taste tour... :)

winebookgirl said...

I keep meaning to do a pork bun challenge.


foodhoe said...

what a fun challenge! I love that combination, my most recent bowl was at Ranch 99... it was all right but not fantastic. Although with the chilly weather, any kind of hot noodle soup tastes good. Based on the numbers then, best taste had the best taste?

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, I think you were thrown off by the name Best Taste. (See, those Chinese know how to name their places because it made you think they were they best.) Best Taste scored an overall 3, but Cafe 88 scored an overall 4. So Cafe 88 is my favorite, even though I think it's weird that they bring the duck separate from the noodles.

A said...

thank you for the post. I'd like to see a SF version too!

James @ The Eaten Path said...

What a noble endeavor! I did a similar tour with fuzhou hand pulled noodles and fried dumplings in Manhattan chinatown, and I'm still discovering wonderful new additions to the list :)

Carolyn Jung said...

You struck a total chord with me. I have not eaten this since childhood. I don't know why, as I love it. You make me long for it now. I can still taste the smoky, tender duck and those plump won tons. Good stuff!

Cookie said...

I haven't had Duck Wonton for a LONG time and remember getting it from Sun Hong Kong in Oakland. My mom is one of those people that still make her own wonton and she usually makes a huge batch, then freeze them for later.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

When we on the rare occasion find ourselves in Oakland Chinatown, we always head for Gum Kuo. Maybe next time we'll try out Cafe 88.

Fat Fat! Double Prosperity! Must be good ;-)

Amedy said...

Yummy I love ducks these dishes looks so delicious

Anonymous said...

Please go and rate the restaurant on the corner of Broadway and Powell and tell me if their fire duck wonton mein is just as good as Oakland's. Loved this post.

Unknown said...

I loved this post too - yes, please do one for San Francisco. I love roast duck won ton noodle soup. I sent this to my sister and she and I entered into a 10 email thread about our love of this soup and the last time we had it ... good times. I will definitely need to get me some soup this weekend!

Garret said...

I have never been a big fan of noodle soup but after this wonderful post it looks like I might have to give it another shot!

Thanks for the post!

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