On a cold winter day, I was standing across from the House of Dragons - Chinatown's firehouse - when the oddest thing occurred. My guests were late for a lunch of congee and noodle soup at Ting Wong. But as I waited on the 10th Street sidewalk, a train of tourists - three separate groups - approached me to ask for dining advice.
Know anywhere for real dim sum? Wonton soup? Where can we get good hot pots?
Was there an imaginary arrow blinking above my head? It might as well have read: "Restaurant Critic Here - Ask for Dumpling Wisdom."
No matter. I put on my Chinatown Eaters Bureau hat and began doling out more advice than these visitors had bargained for. Their eyes glazed over as I ticked through a handful of favorites - humble Nan Zhou for hand-stretched noodles with soy sauce pork and ethereally thin wontons; trusty Lee How Fook for chicken-asparagus hot pots, scallop fried rice, and Buddha's delight; Sakura Mandarin for wondrous broth-filled soup dumplings; Ocean City for good-enough dim sum (especially the filled barbecue-pork pastries), and tiny coconut tarts at the Mayflower Bakery for dessert. . . .
"Excuse me, but is this place any good?" came yet another voice from behind me.
I turned around to find a bearded man who looked remarkably like Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. His name, I learned, was Paul, a retired cable worker from Hawaii. And he was peering into the window of Ting Wong.
It's a narrow storefront with a nondescript red sign that melts into the cacophony of the Chinatown streetscape. But sidle close to the glass, and a hive of activity appears. Bubbling cauldrons of broth in the window hold strainer baskets of simmering fresh wontons and vivid green bundles of Chinese broccoli. Cleavers flash in a silvery blur as white-coated chefs, flanked by hanging racks of long-necked poultry, pigs, and yellow cuttlefish, whack hunks of crispy pork and lacquered duck into perfect fans atop bowls of soup and plates of rice.
Behind them, a long room of pink Formica tables unfolds beneath fluorescent lights and a water-stained drop ceiling. No, it isn't fancy, but Ting Wong is perpetually packed with a remarkably diverse crowd - young, old, Asian, Caucasian, Latino - most of them happily hunkered over wide, steaming bowls of broth and noodles. At less than $10 a meal, it's little wonder Ting Wong is one of my go-to Chinatown haunts, too. But the menu, with more than 230 items, can also be dizzying. So I made it easy.
"Get the soy sauce chicken noodle soup, Number 45," I said. "You'll thank me later."
The soy sauce chicken is Ting Wong's ultimate Hong Kong-style signature. The birds, freshly killed each morning at the Q&Q market on Spring Garden Street, are simmered in an exotic brew with soy, honeyed rice wine, and sesame oil, along with a dozen spices, including galangal, dried orange, star anise, and angelica. Deboned and layered in soup atop a nest of thin noodles and plumes of choy sum greens, it's among the most tender and flavorful bites of chicken I've eaten. The rich and complex broth, the building block for Ting Wong's menu, is restorative.
By the time my guests finally arrived and we were seated toward the back, Paul was already scraping the bottom of his soy sauce chicken soup at a table beside us. He looked up and smiled with a thumbs-up: "Thanks!"
His eyes then widened as he overheard me ordering a feast of inordinate proportions - I was on a mission to explore this vast menu beyond my favorites. So I invited him to join us. He seemed lonely, having traveled to visit an old friend in the hospital.
Just as important, our no-nonsense, non-English-speaking waiter was bristling at the girth of my order, muttering disapprovingly, "Too much food! Too much food! . . ."
I needed an extra eater, and Paul was happy to oblige.
To begin with, we dipped into a bowl of congee, the thick white-rice porridge that's a popular Chinatown breakfast and the ultimate defroster for the shuddering winter chill. It appears to be a blank and gloopy white canvas, but this congee is deceptively complex, with two kinds of rice hand-stirred for hours until melted into a broth lightly seasoned with dried seafood, then threaded with sparkling ginger and whatever toppings you choose, whether it's the novice-friendly chunks of barbecue-ringed pork loin, morsels of golden-skinned, honey-lacquered duck, or, for Chinatown habitués, a fresh frog, or pork belly with a "thousand-year-old" preserved egg. We savored ours blended with minced beef and crunchy rice noodles. With a drop of soy and sriracha heat for seasoning, plus ripped-off nubs of fried dough on the side, it took on added dimensions.
In true Hong Kong duck house fashion, the hanging roasted meats are a forte. Ting Wong's "roast pork" is irresistible, the tender meat shined with a honeyed pink, at once sweet but complex with garlic, ginger, and five-spice punch. The similarly seasoned spare ribs are just as good if you prefer gnawing bones. But it's the crispy "roast pig" that is a complete addiction, a roasted suckling pig whose spice-rubbed skin crackles with clove, garlic, and sesame over the thin layer of creamy fat that separates each piece from the tender flesh.
In our spirit of adventure, we ordered the marinated cuttlefish and were amazed. The alien-looking creatures, which hang like upside-down yellow pope hats in front, arrived neatly sliced into wide white chips like the most tender calamari steak ever, rich with wine and sesame oil.
There were only a few disappointments. The beef stew, whose anise-spiced gravy is used with broth to season all the Hong Kong noodles, was unpleasantly chewy. The Peking-style pork chops from the supplementary Americanized menu were slathered in a numbingly sweet glaze. The Singapore noodles were so-so.
Mostly, though, my forays here beyond soup and congee were well-rewarded. Crispy fried noodle baskets topped with velvet-sauced seafood. Wide chow fun rice noodles tangled with tender beef and fermented black beans. My favorite unexpected dish of this blowout meal? A fried rice tossed with tender diced chicken, sweet peas, and anchovy, salty morsels that didn't overpower, but lent the rice an intriguing tidal funk.
The bill - $57 for a feast that could have fed 10 - was an amazing value, with plenty to wrap up and take home. Our new friend, Paul, was happy to help out with that.
He was also the perfect one to reply when, upon stepping back onto the 10th Street sidewalk, I was immediately approached by yet another couple with suitcases in tow: "Hey, is this place good?" the man asked.
Paul lifted up his take-out bags with a smile: "Yes, it is!"
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews JG Domestic in the Cira Centre. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.