Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fun Playing with Authentic Chinese Food in Cleveland's Asiatown

Cleveland's Asiatown continues to grow and thrive. One of the newest arrivals, taking the space formerly occupied by New Wong's at 3211 Payne Avenue, is Wonton Gourmet & BBQ (no website, (216) 875-7000). New Wong's had been an Asiatown staple for BBQ, Noodles, and Seafood, but the space had gotten old and worn. Last year, the owners relocated to the far East Side.

The new owners have transformed the space into a bright, clean, friendly place. The kitchens are sparkling new, as are the restrooms. The parking lot has been expanded - and they needed it last night! The restaurant was fully packed by 7pm - the only open tables were reserved for a large birthday party that didn't get started until we left (too bad - I wanted to see what they were going to eat).

In addition to two printed menus containing a fabulous selection of small plates, Congee, Noodles, Rice Plates, Hong Kong Style Noodle Soups, Casseroles, Fresh Fish and Seafood, traditional Chinese dishes and a full "American style Chinese" section - daily specials hang from the walls on neatly calligraphied yellow banners.

Our friend Stuart - who is an amazing food photographer - photographed all of the banners, and then found some people who read characters to translate most of them. So, when we met last night for dinner, we were able to go beyond the printed menus. I think our hosts were impressed with our selections, and how much we enjoyed them!

We started with one of my favorite things: Fish Maw and Conpoy Soup. I wish there was a sexier translation for the first ingredient (the second ingredient, Conpoy, is dried scallop), because it sounds icky to the Western ear. But trust me - this delicate soup packs delicious taste!

The perfectly clear broth was gently seasoned, so it was easy to taste all of the ingredients - the finely chopped scallops, the fish maw (which had been lightly fried before being added to the soup) and the egg white ribbons.

Before we could finish a small cup of soup - dishes began appearing at the table, to the point that our little four top was completely overwhelmed (especially with three people photographing the food at the same time). I was pleased that they served us Chinese style - no standing on ceremonies or courses - each plate came out hot as soon as it was ready.

Salt & Pepper Squid

Squid is one of those tricky-to-prepare foods - cook too long or too short and it becomes rubber. This plate was perfect in taste and texture, and accented with mouth-numbing slivers of chile.

Minced Garlic Snowpea Sprouts

This dish is ubiquitous in Chinese cuisine - yet this version was the best we ever tasted. Exquisitely fresh vegetable, cooked perfectly, with lots of garlic and just a kiss of gentle sauce.

Beef Ribs in Black Pepper Sauce

I love black pepper sauce - and this dish delivered lip smacking flavor.

Who'd have known that flanken could taste this good?

Pork Belly Braised with Pickles

This was hands down the table favorite. It took a few moments for us to get the server to understand that yes, we understood this dish has a lot of fat and yes - we like that!! He was delighted!

The "pickles" are various Chinese pickled vegetables that soak up fat from the braise. The perfume of star anise permeated the dish, and the meat and fat melted on the lips.

Dry Fried E-Fu Noodles

This was very tasty, but didn't amaze as much as the other dishes.

Of course, we barely scratched the surface of the offerings at Wonton Gourmet, so we'll have to return - a few dozen times, I think. The stir fried crabs served at the table across from us looked fantastic, as did the clams with black bean sauce served to another table. If you enjoy playing with authentic Chinese food, and you are in Cleveland, this is a must-stop.


  1. That soup is magnificent - the conpoy is so intense. It's a natural source of "umami" savory flavor. The fish maw doesn't have much flavor, but the silky texture is a perfect compliment to the rich conpoy flavor.

    Your photos are terrific, Nancy.


  2. And I forgot to even mention the Red Vinegar offered to us with the soup - I believe it was the same product I wrote about here:

    Though I couldn't bear to interfere with the Zen-like perfection of the soup - I know Edsel, Bob and Stuart did.