13 Mott Street, New York, NY 10013
There's a reason wonton soup became one of the backbones of the Chinese-American restaurant menu. Beyond being simply delicious, it is a taste that crosses borders. It's clear, meat-based broth with pasta, meat, and perhaps a few vegetables; If you know chicken noodle soup, you know wonton soup. Long before the current high state of Chinese food awareness in New York arose, wonton soup allowed folks unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine to feel like they were being a bit adventurous while still finding comfort in familiar flavors and texture.
As a kid, a hot bowl of wonton soup was the start of every Chinese take out meal we had, and usually the best part, authenticity be damned. I loved how slippery and salty the skins would get, and how the little slick of fat on top of the bowl would cling to each wonton's folds. I loved the balance of meaty flavor with chives and cabbage in the broth, and the little bouncy nuggets of pork and shrimp hidden in the folded depths of each skin.
I don't know if I'm just looking at the wontons of my past through a slick of rose-tinted chicken fat, but It seems to me like the average quality of wonton soup has been steadily declining. Perhaps my taste as a kid was poor or perhaps wonton soup is really getting worse. Either way, it's been getting harder and harder to find a bowl that pleases.
The solution? Try every available version in Manhattan's chinatown until I find one that recaptures—nay, eclipses—those childhood memories. The best bowl of wonton soup in the city.
I quickly realized that even with limiting my options to Manhattan's Chinatown that tasting every single wonton soup available would be a tall task. I decided to limit myself to restaurants in which wonton soup features prominently on their menu. This narrowed down to options 23. They fell into certain categories of restaurants: Classic Chinese-American New York restaurants like Wo Hop and Big Wong, Fuzhou-style quick lunch counters with their teeny-tiny wontons, and noodle shops that serve wonton noodle soups.
There was a bit of overlap in these categories—for instance, some of the restaurants I'd call Chinese-American also served wonton noodle soups—but once I tasted all of the soups, the classification of where each belonged was pretty clear.
When plain wonton soup was available on the menu, that's generally what I ordered. In some cases, wonton noodle soup was the recommended or most popular menu option, in which case I ordered that. Here's what I tasted, in no particular order:
- East Corner WonTon
- New HK Wonton Garden
- Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine Restaurant Inc
- Prosperity Dumpling
- Vanessa's Dumpling House
- Tanxia Wang Fuzhou Cuisine
- Great NY Noodletown
- Big Wong Restaurant
- Nice Green Bo
- Tasty Dumpling
- Noodle Village
- Big Wing Wong Restaurant
- Joe's Shanghai Restaurant
- Wonton Garden
- Prosperity Dumpling
- Wo Hop
- C & L Dumpling House
- J.J. Noodle Restaurant
- Sheng Wang
- Old Sichuan Cuisine
- 69 Bayard St
- Hop Kee
- Bo Ky Restaurant
It's tough to do a completely fair side-by-side ranking of all the wonton soups available because there are so many distinct styles. There's the stuff they serve in barbecue shops flavored with bits of char siu. There's the teeny tiny dumplings in celery-flavored broth at the Fuzhou-style restaurants. There's the plump shrimp and pork dumplings in soup flavored with dried seafood and yellow chives at Hong Kong-style restaurants. So in addition to naming an overall winner, I also decided to pick a few of my favorites from among the other great bowls.
Wonton soups were based on the following parameters:
- Overall: Was this a satisfying bowl of soup? Did it taste like it was made with care in a real kitchen using real ingredients, or is it on this menu as an afterthought? Would I want to hunker down on a cold night with only this bowl to keep me company?
- The Wontons: First and foremost, a wonton wrapper needs to be tender and thin enough that it has a pleasantly slippery chew without a hint of doughiness. Some styles are thicker or thinner than others, but doughy is never a good thing. The fillings need to be flavorful and moist, and if there are whole shrimp present, they should be crunchy and pop in your mouth with briny flavor.
- The Broth: A balance of meat or ocean flavors need to form the backbone, balanced by good use of vegetables and aromatics. The broths should be rich enough that they'd make a satisfying bowl of soup on their own—a bit of fat floating across the surface goes a long way in adding flavor and body. And proper seasoning levels can go without saying.
In this taste test, I was more surprised by the losers than by the winners. I went into this project thinking that even worst wonton soup would be a soup worth eating. After all, I grew up with an indiscriminate love for the stuff whether I ordered it at our favorite restaurants in Chinatown (anyone remember Sun Lok Kee down Mott or the original Phoenix Garden under the Elizabeth Street arcade before it burned down in a wok fire?) or one of the crummy take out joints that every captive audience Vermont ski town had in the '80s. I was wrong.
Some restaurants, like the classic Wo Hop, had wontons with skins that tasted like they were cut out of raw lasagna dough and a broth that tasted of leftover roast pork. Others, like Great NY Noodle Town had slippery, metallic broths and shrimp that were so past their prime that ammonia was the only noticeable aromatic. Truth be told, there are plenty of poor wonton soups in this town.
That said, there were some excellent ones as well. Here's what I liked.
The Best Overall: Noodle Village
This is hands down the best wonton soup you'll find in Chinatown, if not the whole city.
The Broth: Clean and thin in texture, but deeply flavored with dried flounder and yellow chives, giving it a slight ocean-y aroma that compounds its savoriness.
The Wontons: They may be sparse in number, but they're the biggest and juiciest of the lot with plenty of bouncy pork and shrimp that pop with a great crunch in your mouth.
At $5.50 for the bowl, this was the most expensive of the soups I tasted, and worth every extra penny.
Best Wonton Noodle Soup: 102 Noodle Town
Also known as Big Wing Wong (not to be confused with our Chinese-American-style runner up Big Wong), the fresh wonton noodles with wontons ($5) is what to order here.
The Broth: A clear, meat-based broth with plenty of scallions and cilantro, giving it a fresh, clean flavor.
The Wontons: Slippery skins and a sweet, juicy filling make these fun to eat. There are no whole shrimp here, but small chunks of shrimp folded into the filling. The noodles are also stand out—chewy and easily slurpable with a resilient texture.
Best Wonton Noodle Soup Runner-Up: HK Wonton Garden
At $4.50, this generous bowl of noodles and wontons is a great deal, if a little thin on flavor.
The Broth: Very mild in flavor with a little too much salt (perhaps to cover up some basic flaws). It could use more meat and a bit more vegetation. A touch of Chinese cabbage would go a long way.
The Wontons: What the soup lacks in flavor, the wontons make up. Nice, firm shrimp, very thin skins, and a sweet, porky flavor.
Best Fuzhou Style: Shu Jiao Fuzhou
Rather than a half dozen large wontons, Fuzhou-style wonton soups feature dozens and dozens of wispy, translucent, baby wontons in a clear, celery and scallion-flavored broth. For $2, Shu Jiaou Fuzhou's soup has the highest deliciousness to cost ratio in this lineup.
The Broth: Meaty and rich with a nice slick of flavorful fat running across its surface and plenty of celery, cabbage, and scallion flavor to balance it out. It's well seasoned—I'd drink the broth alone and be happy on a cold fall night.
The Wontons: Though they're still small and wispy, the pork dumplings at Shu Jiaou have the same robust sweet pork flavor as their larger, plumper cousins. For me, these things are comfort food at its best. Think tortellini soup, Chinese-style.
Best Fuzhou Style Runner Up: Tanxia Fuzhou
Tanxia Fuzhou is a block away and offers the same amount of soup at the same price ($2) as Shu Jiao Fuzhou, and to be honest, it was a tough call. Both restaurants have redeeming qualities, but Shu Jiao's superior broth pushed it to the top in the end.
The Broth: Slightly underseasoned and a little thin, but a decent amount of celery and scallion flavor and shimmering fat on top.
The Wontons: The thinnest and lightest wontons I tasted. If you love that feeling of their skins dissolving on your tongue (I do), then these are the wontons for you, despite their slightly bland fillings.
Best Chinese-American Style: New Green Bo
New Green Bo (formerly known as Nice Green Bo) is ostensibly a Shanghainese restuarant, and its soup dumplings and other dough-based steamed and fried snacks speak to that. However, their wonton soup is Chinese-American all the way, and like other similar restaurants in Chinatown, the servings at New Green Bo are larger. Eight over-stuffed wontons in a wide bowl of broth for only $4.75. It's easily enough to make a satisfying meal out of.
The Broth: Excuse me sir, but do you like chicken? This broth tastes like its made with straight up boiled chicken bones with some salt and perhaps a dash of white pepper and MSG added for flavor. Not much vegetation or aromatics going on in here. Still, it's satisfyingly rich and fatty.
The Wontons: Plump pork and cabbage filling wrapped up tortellini-style in pleasantly thin and tender skins. Of this style of soup we tasted, it was the only one that didn't have doughy wontons, making it the clear victor.
Best Chinese-American Style Runner Up: Big Wong
Again, our classification system is a little iffy considering that Big Wong serves noodles in their wonton soup, but if you walk in, it's about as classic Chinese-American as it gets. At $5.25 for five wontons and some noodles, it's not the best deal around.
The Broth: I liked the balance of pork and chicken flavor in this broth, with a bit of a roasted element going on. Plenty of salt makes you wonder what they're trying to cover up, but I found nothing offensive and polished my bowl clean over lunch.
The Wontons: The sweet, crunchy shrimp are the best part of these wontons. The dough is ever so slightly chewy and a little too thick. They also use a heavy hand with the sugar.
Of course if you want the best wonton soup, there's only one way to achieve it: Make it yourself at home. Check out our recipe here!
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