As a birthday present for the hubs, the two of us made a quick jaunt up to the Bay Area this past MLK weekend. Good eats and drinks with great company followed, with lots of fantastic pictures courtesy of the new (to me) Leica D-Lux 3 I purchased from Pim of Chez Pim fame! Highlights included:
Eggs benedict and a sweet risotto from a lovely Saturday brunch at Slow Club:
* Crazy good chilaquiles from the Primavera Tamales stand at the Saturday Ferry Market (if only I had enough room to enjoy the panuchos and tamales too!):
Proper xlb (aka xiao long bao or “Shanghai soup dumplings”) at Shanghai Dumpling King in Outer Richmond. It was better than the xlb I had in Hong Kong this past summer!
“Imperial rolls” at Out the Door in the Westfield San Francisco Centre Food Emporium. Yes, I know it’s a mini-chain, in a food court no less, but this was tasty! FYI, this is how food courts in the bougie malls in Manila look like to a T.
The “EAT” sign at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher was the highlight of the meal here, a quick snack we picked up before heading to the airport. Though my patty melt (on fresh, dark rye) wasn’t bad either.
But the highlight of this past trip… finally getting some of that famous Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream. Holy mother. Here’s me enjoying two scoops, of Earl Grey and peanut:
A priority on this trip was to choose eateries that featured ingredients which were local, sustainable, and organic. It was a bit challenging, especially when looking for “authentic” Asian food, a point I want to write more about soon. In general, being more conscious of the provenance of our foods, while still sticking to a budget, is one of my main goals/resolutions this year. If only my wallet (and my waistline) could handle eating like this every weekend!
* photo taken with my old camera, a Panasonic Lumix
After lunch at Wonton Garden, the Mister and I walked around the corner to Mei Li Wah, another favorite Chinatown spot since my childhood.
As long as I’ve known it, Mei Li Wah has been two things: delicious and dank. This was no fancy sit-down restaurant, and it had no ambiance to speak of. This was an old-school coffeeshop for the men, with cigarette butts overflowing every ashtray and the walls crumbling under the weight of all the flyers and signs pasted on them over the years. Everything was a muted shade of brown, or black, including the patrons and the staff. Hardly anyone spoke English, but if you ordered your siopao (also known as baozi, or char siu bao) in Tagalog, you’d be answered quickly back– it was that popular among metro-area Filipinos that the staff picked up the words to serve them.
I didn’t know the men (it was always, only men that worked here) by name, but I knew their faces well. They always remembered my family, greeting us and giving us extra steamed chicken buns with egg, or pork buns (my favorite) with our order.
We’d order siopao by the dozen (everyone did), and watch as the server would take them out, steaming, from the dingy class case behind the counter, and pack them tightly into the square white boxes which they grabbed from the high stacks against the side wall. Like a contraption out of The Goonies, an endless piece of twine attached with pulleys to the ceiling dangling down. Once the siapao was packed, that string would be grabbed and nimbly wrapped around the box, with just one cut of the scissors to sever the rope from the line. With our box securely tied, we’d be back in the car, ready for our late-night dinner of siopao and Wonton Garden soup. It was my favorite New York meal ever, and it still is.
Sometime during college, my roommate at the time (a fellow foodie, with far superior knowledge of Chinese food since her family’s from Shanghai), told me that Mei Li Wah was closing. I cried. Went downtown and ordered two dozen siopao, freezing them so I could hold onto the magic a little longer. A short while later, I found out from my mom (who lives in Florida– I’m telling you, Filipinos know this place!) that one of the owners had some trouble with gambling debt or something, but it was staying open somehow. And it did.
I dream of this place, miss it terribly, and it’s not just because they have the best damn siopao on the planet. Everything about Mei Li Wah is so familiar, so timeless, and even as I grew up, moved around the city and eventually away, Mei Li Wah remained a constant. Dependable, even when my relationships, my career, my life weren’t.
So, yes, when the Mister and I walked around the corner from Wonton Garden and came upon Mei Li Wah, I was excited. He stayed outside as I went in, and in my hurry I failed to notice the tell-tale signs of change until it was too late.
(the bamboo plant and decorations in the window should have tipped me off. a sign for ‘bubble tea,’ for crying out loud.)
It was an abomination inside.
Everything was cleaned up and so new. The counter, where old men would sit all day with their coffees on the rotating stools, was gone, replaced by some faux-bamboo serving station that you’d find in some Pinkberry or frozen yogurt knockoff. The miniscule back seating area, where once people would play checkers for hours with their cigarettes in hand: gone and replaced with shiny new booths, again with the bamboo-themed design.
Worse, the old staff was missing, with the exception of one man I recognized, and replaced with young women dressed in matching bright orange polo shirts, with the name of the restaurant emblazoned over the left breast pocket. They had matching visors!
What. the. hell.
I ordered two siopao (I couldn’t bring myself to get a dozen, not here), and ran the hell out.
I didn’t want them to see the tears in my eyes, because it was just too much. Too different. Too generic, and corporatized. Where did the old staff go? What about their patrons? Forget me– where were the locals going to play checkers in the winter now?
I ate the siopao later, guiltily, at my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. It had been in the fridge for a while, so wasn’t as fresh. It still tasted wonderful. But it wasn’t special anymore, because I didn’t recognize where it had come from.
Some West Coast-bred friends of mine went to New York a week later for spring break. I hadn’t told them about Mei Li Wah, but I did recommend Wonton Garden to them, among other places. Not knowing the city, they didn’t know what neighborhood they were staying in until they were there. It ended up that they were in Chinatown for the week, and they excitedly recounted how they had found this amazingly cute little coffeeshop where they had cheap coffee and breakfast snacks every morning.
It was Mei Li Wah.
I’m ungrateful but I’ll say it– I wish it had just closed those years ago, when it was rumored to. I’d rather it be gone for good then have it like this. My taste memory of Mei Li Wah is just that; I will never have it again.
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