Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Taste Off: Roasted Duck Won Ton Noodles in San Francisco

When I did my Taste Off comparing roasted duck won ton noodles in Oakland, I asked if you guys wanted to see the same for San Francisco. And not surprisingly, you did. So after months of traipsing around the city looking for this classic Chinese soup noodle dish, these are my results.

First off, like I expected, it took me awhile to pull this together because unlike Oakland where I could check out restaurants within Chinatown, in San Francisco I had to basically seek out the best all over the city since Chinese food is not restricted to the boundaries of Chinatown. And since I live across the bay in Oakland, I only had the weekends to hunt down a bowl of tasty duck and springy noodles for lunch.

Second, I noticed that this noodle dish of my childhood is actually much harder to find these days where Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen are all the craze among Asian soup noodle lovers. In fact, when I was in San Francisco Chinatown, many of the noodle shops that once specialized in won ton noodles are now serving up pho. (Don’t get me wrong, I love pho. But I also sometimes crave the thin noodles and won ton dumplings.)

Several places I went to didn’t even have the combination of roast duck and won ton soup noodles. But in cases where I knew the restaurant had roast duck (them hanging in the window was a big giveaway), I just went in and asked for a roast duck won ton noodle soup even if it wasn’t on the menu. (Oftentimes I’d end up paying more than what the won ton noodles were listed on the menu.)

So basically, I hope you appreciate all the work I went through to compile this list. Not to mention the beating my cholesterol did from eating some of the fatty duck. Yes, I am your food martyr! LOL.

OK, enough about me. So here’s my list. This time I listed them in ascending order of rank (in my Oakland list I did it alphabetically to be fair but that threw some people off thinking the first one listed was the best). I visited seven places, so we start with lucky No. 7.

No. 7: Yee’s Restaurant, 1131 Grant Ave., Chinatown. PH: 415.576.1818, cash only

Cost: $4.75 ($5.10 w/tax)

Noodles (3.5 stars): The thin noodles were very yellow, and indeed had a real “eggy” taste to them. Still, they were cooked nicely where they were springy and not overcooked and soft.

Won ton (3 stars): There seemed to be a lot of them, I think maybe seven dumplings made in the seur gow style where the skin is just crumpled into a ball. They were all uniform in size, which made for a nice presentation.

Duck (3 stars): There was a healthy portion of duck pieces that looked lacquered and shiny, but unfortunately they were fatty and room temperature. Some of the pieces looked unusual, almost like offal, so it is an experiment in tasting when eating the duck here.

Yee’s definitely has the best value for their roast duck won ton noodles, especially since they’re right on touristy Grant Avenue in Chinatown. In fact, it looked like several tourists came in to explore the other dishes in this real divey, working man’s restaurant. The won ton broth had a deep color and the greens underneath wasn’t anything special, and actually was soggy and overcooked.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 6: China First, 336 Clement St. (at 5th Avenue), Inner Richmond neighborhood. PH: 415.387.8370, major credit cards accepted

Cost: $7.10 (including tax)

Noodles (3.25 stars): Thin yellow noodles that were good, but I felt like there weren’t a lot of it, maybe because it was in such a big bowl (the kind they use to serve pho).

Won ton (3.25 stars): This dish probably started out as just a won ton soup order because it really had a lot of won ton. I counted nine. They were small and manageable, with loose pork and shrimp filling. The skin was cooked super soft, which made the skin melt in your mouth. I like that but some might not, mistaking the texture to mean they’re soggy.

Duck (3 stars): It was a mix of fatty parts that was hard to eat and one leg that was really nice and meaty. Overall, the taste had that rich duck flavor, but nothing spectacular.

I thought I’d find a few places serving up roasted duck won ton noodles on Clement Street, often referred to as “second Chinatown” because of the many Chinese restaurants and shops. But I walked up and down the street one weekend and couldn’t find a place that served won ton noodles AND roasted duck. Finally, I peeked inside China First because their menu outside said they had won ton noodles. It looked like an old-time restaurant that might be tired and old-fashioned, and appearance-wise it is, but when I asked if they could make the roasted duck won ton combo, they gladly did (for a price). The won ton broth was light, almost bland, but it made the overall bowl seem healthy. It came with lots of miniature bok choy and surprisingly there were cilantro sprigs, which gave a nice aroma when it arrived at the table.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 5: Utopia Café, 139 Waverly Place (between Clay and Washington), Chinatown. PH: 415.956.2902, credit cards accepted

Cost: $6.95 ($7.60 w/tax)

Noodles (4.25 stars): Very thin and the best I’ve tasted, although I wasn’t a fan of the color, which was on the dark wheat-like side.

Won ton (3.5 stars): Nice, quaint dumplings that looked really cute. The filling was a bit dense but they had a real vibrant flavor. You could tell the ingredients were fresh.

Duck (2.5 stars): This was the downfall of what would have been a masterful bowl of won ton noodles. The duck came in chunks but with lots of bone and very little meat. The meat, when visible, was very tender and tasty. But the duck was cold and there were some with a fatty yellow substance.

This place could be written off as touristy, which probably explained why I was surprised when their won ton noodles were light and refreshing. It was presented with beautiful fresh bok choy that were nicely cooked. The broth was also light and tasty and I could have just drank it by itself.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 4: Toon Kee, 2191 Irving St., Inner Sunset, PH: 415.731.9948, credit cards accepted

Cost: $7.39 (tax included)

Noodles (3.5 stars): Yellow egg noodles that were thin, but seemed a bit salty. But there were a lot of noodles.

Won ton (3 stars): Six small-sized won ton tasted fresh but also a bit salty (I see a theme developing).

Duck (3.5 stars): A big plate of roast duck sold separately and brought from the roasting/deli station. When my won ton soup noodles arrived, I just poured in my duck to create the combo. The duck skin was a dark amber color and there were a lot of choice pieces with lean meat mixed with the typically fatty ones. While probably the most deep in flavor in town, the duck was, you guessed it, a bit salty!

This corner restaurant is interesting because from the outside it looks like a pho place but they had duck hanging in the window. So I went in and saw on the menu that they had a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. They didn’t have roasted duck won ton noodles on the menu, but they did have won ton noodles. So the waitress ordered me that and the roast duck from the deli section, and that’s how I came up with this higher priced dish. The broth was nice (served with cilantro) and the bowl was big like they used for pho. But the high price and the salty elements kind of brought everything down.

Overall grade: 3.25 stars

No. 3: Cheung Hing, 2339 Noriega St. (between 30 and 31 Avenues), Outer Sunset. PH: 415.665.3271, cash only.

Cost: $5.95 ($6.52 with tax)

Noodles (3.75 stars): Yellow noodles that had a nice bite to it but slightly thicker of all the thin noodles I’ve seen. Still, a nice taste to them.

Won ton (3.25 stars): Six dense balls of won ton that had texture almost like pork paste or fish paste.

Duck (4.25 stars): Probably the best duck I’ve had around town. The flavor was really nice, deep and smoky. The only downside was the fatty skin, even though it had brilliant color.

This is a place I used to go to a long time ago when I lived close to San Francisco State University. On the tiny Chinese shopping area on Noriega, this popular deli shop is right across the Safeway. People line up at the deli to buy food after work to take home for dinner. They have a few tables to eat in, and I sat myself down for the won ton noodle soup. The broth had lots of flavor, which isn’t surprising given all the duck fat skin. But the bowl didn’t have anything else, no greens. But maybe you don’t need it with all that flavor.

Overall grade: 3.75 stars

No. 2: Hing Lung, 674 Broadway (at Stockton St.), Chinatown. PH: 415.398.8838, credit cards accepted

Cost: $8.21 (with tax)

Noodles (4.5 stars): Thin and strong noodles, almost like they’re crunchy, but they’re not. They’re just so springy they were almost al dente. Nice yellow, fresh color.

Won ton (3.5 stars): Nice color and shape, rounded seur gow-style. The skin or wraps were really thin and the ingredients were fresh. But the pork seemed a bit dense and rubbery. Still, they had lots of flavor.

Duck (4 stars): Lots of pieces, but many on the fatty side. The taste is strong and rich but the skin isn’t as crispy as I remembered.

This is the most popular place in Chinatown for won ton noodles and any kind of noodles and jook. That probably explains the high prices, for Chinese restaurant standards. I use to come here all the time for their roasted duck won ton noodles, and they still deliver with broth that has a lot of flavor. It’s one of the few places where I drink the broth and not just use it as a way to keep my noodles moist.

Overall grade: 4 stars

No. 1: King Won Ton & Noodle, 1936 Irving St. (at 20th), Inner Sunset. PH: 415.682.9813, cash only

Cost: $6.50 ($7.12 w/tax)

Noodles (4.75 stars): House-made, thin and crinkly, cooked to a nice springy texture. Some might think they’re slightly salty. You get a lot of the noodles in the bowl.

Won ton (4.25 stars): There were only three dumplings, but they are soooo huge! The dumplings were the size of golf balls or maybe tennis balls. Each one had three tiny shrimp pieces inside, and overall they had a nice fresh flavor.

Duck (3 stars): Poor selection of pieces, not a lot of meat, skin not that crispy looking, and flavor a bit salty.

This fairly new restaurant is extremely popular with a variety of noodle dishes, some of them from Northern China. So it felt weird for me to order such a pedestrian dish as roasted duck won ton noodles. Still, what came out was amazing and different enough to make it stand out on its own. The bowl had a nice broth and lots of fresh green iceberg lettuce underneath, although it was cut really big. But really what sold it was the huge dumplings and the perfectly cooked noodles.

Overall: 4.25 stars


Cookie said...

WOW! I admire you for being so ambitious but all the dishes look so comforting and yummy!

ruby said...

I love this list!!!!! I'm definitely going to try one of these places -- I just don't know which! I'm a huge fan of duck, so I'd want a 4+ star duck place... but I also like won ton a lot!! D: D:

If you're taking requests for the next tasteoff, I'd like to see either burgers, dumplings, or char siu bao!

agent713 said...

Ah the things you do for us. Thanks for taking one (or seven) for the team! ;)

foodhoe said...

wow, you are so ambitious! looks like a fun thing to research... I haven't heard of half of these places and you didn't go to ABC?

Single Guy Ben said...

Ruby, those are some good ideas. I guess it's back to work for me. :)

Foodhoe, where's ABC? I don't know about that place. Is it good?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you didn't try Kam Po Kitchen on the corner of Broadway and Powell. Thanks for the reviews. Can't wait for you to try it and rate it.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

Thanks for doing this! Now you've given me a craving for duck and won ton noodles. The King Won Tons are huge!

I'd like to see a comparison of beef tendon won ton noodles now. ;-)

Actually, you've spurred the idea for us to do a Sarawak Laksa comparison. Do you take notes at each restaurant, while you eat? What's your standard that you measure against?

Single Guy Ben said...

Nate/Annie: I don't eat a lot of beef so not sure if I'd ever do the beef tendon won ton taste off, I like my duck! But I'd love to see you do something about Sarawak Laksa. Sounds so interesting, and I bet you can get a lot of comparison going where you are. My standards are usually what I think is good quality ingredients and how they're prepared and if they remind me of what I ate in my childhood (authenticity factor).