taste memory: Wonton Garden
There are just some restaurants that feel like coming home. Wonton Garden, a hole-in-the-wall on Mott Street in Chinatown, is one of those places for me. Since my family immigrated to the US, they’ve been coming here. My own first memory of eating here is probably from twenty years back, at age six or seven. I remember really loving their soy bean drink (not soy milk, but the sugary stuff). I still get it every time I go, though it’s not as sweet as the drink of my childhood… but really, isn’t that always the case?
The open kitchen is still tiny, and with the exception of 1. the hula shirts all the men wear, 2. the small TV above that they constantly have their eye on when they’re not dropping food on your table, and 3. a slight washing that makes the place look remotely clean, it’s exactly the same. At some point over the years, they changed the name to “New” Wonton Garden, but that name never really stuck with us…
The menus have literally shrunk to a small booklet size, but I’ve been ordering “C18” for years: Cantonese lo-mein with soup on the side, with beef stew and wontons on top. Prices are around $7, and it’s still worth it for the giant portions you’re served, but I remember the good old days when everything was $4 or less.
I don’t know what it is about these noodles, but I’ve never found any other place that serves them– not in Chinatown, and definitely not outside. The food comes out so quickly, because the noodles are always cooking in the same pot, being replenished by the cook as needed. When he receives the order, the cook cuts the noodle strands with a regular pair of scissors, places them on the plate, and tops with whatever you’ve ordered for the day. Usually within five minutes, your meal is steaming and ready on your table. (Note to vegetarians: beware! Just because you don’t order meat toppings on your noodles, you’re not escaping their being cooked in a beef broth!)
The beef this time around was more red then it’s been: maybe they substituted with a roasted meat instead of the usual braised? In any case, it was still like heaven.
The Mister (pictured above) usually gets the noodles in soup, the house specialty. His order this time was fish balls and wontons:
In case it’s not abundantly clear, it’s all about the noodles and wontons here. The wonton skins are almost translucent, and the shrimp inside are so lightly flavored and delicate. The mouthfeel of having a wonton burst upon first bite is unforgettable.
As a teenager, when we had moved from the NY metro area to the backwaters of Florida, our trips to visit family up north followed a predictable, invariable routine. We would fly into JFK, Newark, or LaGuardia, and no matter what time of night, my mother would make our family members drive us to Chinatown so we could get noodles in soup from Wonton Garden to go. She would wait in the car with our family and send me inside to order and pick up, because you know parking in Chinatown is impossible. I always felt so embarrassed to be doing it, but now as an adult myself, I totally understand why. No matter how short my trip back to the city is, I always make time for Wonton Garden. One day, perhaps I’ll be sitting in my heated up car, sending my reluctant teenage daughter into the bitter winter to get me the plate of C18 I’ve been dreaming of since the flight…
On these late-night stops, my family would hit up a second location for our siopao at a favorite spot always packed with Jersey City Filipinos also looking for their pork bun fix. I went again this trip, after our delicious lunch at Wonton Garden, but sadly, things here had changed, and not for the better… (to be continued)
New Wonton Garden
56 Mott Street
New York, NY