|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
What do we mean when we talk about wonton? Are wonton the fried trapezoids in sickly pink syrup that we may have eaten as children? Are they the floppy things that Sichuan restaurants douse in chile oil, or the doughy sinkers in Cantonese soups? May they properly be stuffed with foie gras, as they are on the menu of at least one fusion restaurant in New York, or with mint and mango, as I’ve seen in Honolulu? Is the standard pork filling mandatory, or is a great wonton more properly constructed, as at the Daimo noodle shop near Berkeley, with a whole shrimp sandwiched between a fresh scallop and a dried one?
Lately, I have been obsessed with the wonton at the new Alhambra restaurant Wonton Time, brawny wonton made with coarsely chopped shrimp and wrapped in transparent noodles that contain their muscley bulk about as well as a lacy nightie might contain Karl Malone. These wonton are wondrous things, delicate and lightly crunchy, scented with toasted sesame oil, available either plainly steamed or plunked into a bowl of double-strength chicken broth with only a few slivers of scallion for garnish. The wonton here come only a few to an order, but they are so intricately dense, so bulky, that three or four are a meal.
If you’re in the mood, the cook will throw in a skein of chewy yellow vermicelli noodles, which are rugged enough to maintain their tensile integrity in the extremely hot broth, yet not so aggressive as to overpower it. Kick in another dollar, and you can also get fishballs, huge, fluffy things that are closer to French quenelles than they are to the rubbery spheroids you normally find in Chinese noodle soups — and to tell the truth, are closer to really good gefilte fish than they are to either of those things. You can have the wonton soup supplemented with cornstarch-slicked slices of “velveted” beef, but you are probably better off without it.
If you feel the need to accentuate the flavor, there are canisters of the restaurant’s powerful homemade chile oil, which you can also buy in jars to take home, and of a flowery pink vinegar that really does bring out something compelling in the broth. If you feel the need for something green, you can order what is identified only as “vegetable,” which will most likely refer to a small heap of steamed Chinese broccoli. The menu at Wonton Time is not long, and the waitress is likely to have your bowl of wonton in front of you within a minute or two.
Wonton Time, which from the look of the photographs on the walls is a branch of a noodle shop in Kowloon, occupies a narrow storefront in a new development in Alhambra, a city that until recently seemed hell-bent to stuff its downtown with anything but the thriving Chinese businesses that dominate the rest of its business districts. This complex is an elegant bit of adaptive reuse, a block of storefronts shoehorned into the building that used to house the Garfield Theater, an ancient vaudeville house where the 10-year-old Judy Garland once performed as one of the Gumm Sisters. The theater is hollowed out at the back to form a pocket mall sleek enough to elevate the tchotchke stores into boutiques, so that even the cell-phone retailer and the arcade-full of sticker machines are transformed into something you might see in one of Taipei’s better gallerias.
There is a café called the Alley, with Hong Kong–style pork chops and spaghetti and such, a Chinese candy store, and a branch of Starbucks grand enough to draw the overflow from the legion of nearby boba parlors. The busiest restaurant in the complex is probably Kang Kong, a combination noodle shop–cafeteria–dessert bar with a breathtaking array of gooey Taiwanese snacks. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried rice balls lined with stewed pig’s intestines or a fried meat pie that could put the hurt on a regulation Olympic discus. Kang Kong even has wonton, I think, although I have to admit that I have never tasted them. And until I visit Wonton Time another dozen times — right after I bumped into it, I went for lunch every day for a week — I suspect that Kang Kong’s wonton, no matter how wonderful it might be, will just have to wait.
Wonton Time, 19 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 293-3366. Open daily 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Valet parking in rear. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8–$11. Recommended dish: wonton noodle soup.