San Francisco Chinatown: Recent happenings and the hunt for 牛腩馄饨面

It’s common knowledge that San Francisco Chinatown has been slowly dying over the past few decades or so. The need to go to San Francisco and brave the traffic, lack of parking, crime, drug addicts and purposely homeless is no longer there. It started in the 70s and continued with the migration of the Second Generation to the Richmond and Sunset districts and their New Chinatowns. The Chinatown dispora continued to move to other parts of The City and eventually down the Peninsula and to the East Bay. Then Loma Prieta hit. Chinatown was cut off from the Bay Bridge by the destruction of the 480. As a result, Oakland Chinatown thrived at the expense of SF Chinatown. Things that you could only get in SF Chinatown, such as good food or Chinese groceries you can get in most parts of The City and the Bay Area now.

Then Wuhan Virus hit. And “our leaders” in Silly Hall and Sacratomato went overboard with their power trip, ordering businesses closed while continuing to demand full taxes from them. Many old school institutions in SF Chinatown such as the Empress of China, New Asia and Four Seas and even more restaurants and businesses, such as the small places that make noodles and quick food closed too.

SF Chinatown isn’t dead yet, despite San Francisco’s efforts to kill it. Since Wuhan Virus and the attacks on Asian seniors in San Francisco that led to the recall of Chesa Boudin, Chinatown has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts. New places have opened and old places have reopened and/or expanded. More people are attending events such as last weekend’s early Harvest Moon Festival. It’s as the attacks and virus has revived interest in Chinatown and being Chinese.

As I’ve whined about on this blog before, it’s been difficult to find a proper bowl of Hong Kong style Beef Stew Wonton Mein (牛腩馄饨面) in San Francisco. . There have been great places in the past, such as Won Ton King, formerly on Irving at 21st Avenue that made proper prawn won tons and noodles kneaded with the bamboo pole. Emphasis on “formerly”. Many of the shops that made decent WTM have either changed ownership or have closed outright. If you want a good bowl of won ton mein after 19:00, you have to drive to Hing Lung in San Bruno (north of Tanforan). If you’re around for lunch or early dinner, I have two restaurants here for your consideration in Chinatown.

Yin Du Wonton Noodle has been, according to my friends in the know, the best won ton mein in Chinatown for a while now. It even got a recommendation from the local “newspaper”.

They’re on Pacific near Grant Avenue, next door to the infamous Hollywood Bakery (daan taat anyone?)
Newly reopened after a remodel brought on by a burst pipe in the ceiling. Please note the auntie in the middle of the photo. She’s making won tons.

I went with my friend who brought his GF and her son and had an early dinner. He raved about the ngau nam and how it was tender, flavorful (fatty) and almost perfect.

Dry Ngau Nam Wonton Mein
Two bowls of the same, in soup

You can order ngau nam won ton mein dry here. I didn’t know that. My experience with dry won ton mein comes from ordering the dish in Singapore and Malaysia where it’s served on a plate with a small bowl to dip the noodles in (In Penang, there are many great shops that does both dry and soup versions). I ordered the traditional soup and he ordered it dry. It looks damn good in food porn about and tasted even better. The beef was indeed full of flavor and really tender. The noodles weren’t al dente; they didn’t have that “snap” when you bite into them, but they were still good. The wontons had a decent amount of prawn in them and were good too. We all arrived at 17:00 and they had to kick us out at 19:30 because they wanted to go home (they close at 19:00) and we spent too much time talking about nonsense.

One of the Wuhan Virus victims in Chinatown was the Washington Bakery. They had baked goods and decent wonton. They closed due to the lockdowns, the government and because of some family drama, which I will not go into. The space was taken over by Hon’s Wun-Tun, a small unassuming shop on Kearny and Clay that has been there since 1972 that makes wonton soups.

From their website, their original shop is unassuming and has no parking
Chinatown, San Francisco
Much like Hong Kong shops, the kitchen is in front where they sling bowls of wontons and noodles so you can eat in the back (Photo: Dave Glass via Flickr)

One block over and half a block up, Hon’s on Washington Street has an expanded menu and a more upscale vibe.

Inside, it was well ventilated, about three times bigger than the old place and very swish
You can see the chefs making dumplings and wonton from the sidewalk

As is the current trend, you can scan the QR code, order and pay from your iPhone (or ‘droid if that’s what you use). Regular ordering via paper menus and a server are available.

Scan here for food
When you’re seated, you get a paper menu, utensils and tea

Prior to going to Yin Du, we went here the week before to try it out. We ordered a plate of gai lan to start and when it arrived, I thought they got the order wrong. My friend figured they sliced it as well as chopped it. That makes it easier to eat. He was right because normally gai lan is just chopped with oyster sauce on top. It’s kind of like trying to eat a telephone pole because it’s so thick and it does take a lot of effort to bite through it. In that case, I ask for a fork and knife.

img 0763 1
Gai Lan usually is presented like this. Cooking instructions here.

Hon’s gai lan. It was easier to eat.

You can chop gai lan both ways.
Hon’s Ngau Nam wonton mein

I liked the noodles, they had the proper “snap” to them as well as being al dente. The broth was fish based, as is the norm for practically all the places I’ve been to in Hong Kong. There was some controversy here since my friend has never had wonton mein in Hong Kong and his first reaction was:

Eww, that’s fishy!

I’ve never really paid that much attention to the broth other than its consistency. But after he went on about never having broth here that was “fishy”, he had a point. Many places, if not all places here either do a light broth or some broth with the ngau nam gravy mixed in to make it more savory. So I will concede his point.

The beef was a different matter. Either by choice or not, the beef was on the lean side. Chewy. It wasn’t stewed long enough so it had that “falls apart when picked up by chopsticks” consistency. And the other thing about lean beef is that it is lacking in flavor, cos it’s lean beef (filet mignon not included). It was solid, but not yum. The wontons are made in house and they were good too. Good but not fantastical. There was more pork than prawns in the wontons. And the prawns were chopped small and I believe they were frozen.

Hon’s on Washington Street (pinched from Yelp review, link below)

I will give Hon’s on Washington Street the benefit of the doubt, since we went there during their soft opening. When they have their grand opening, we will do a return visit, because you don’t really need a reason for having ngau nam wonton mein, right?

Yin Du Wonton Noodle
648 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108

Hon’s Wun-Tun Washington Street
733 Washington Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

Both restaurants close at 19:00 and Yin Du only takes cash. Hon’s takes Apple Pay and credit cards in addition to cash.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.