Tuesday, September 15, 2009

1 Ton of Flavor

While lamenting the loss of places like McCully Chop Suey, we need to celebrate all of the great Old Hawaii-Style Chinese restaurants we still do have.  Restaurants which serve the classic old school Cantonese dishes the Chinese workers brought with them when they came to work on the sugar plantations.  Among these classic dishes is a local favorite, won ton mein.

When I was little, won ton mein seemed so boring, so ordinary.   I remember sitting in Chinese school, and one of the little girls was excitedly telling her friend how she was looking forward to having won tons for dinner.  And I remember thinking to myself... what's so great about having won tons?   And of course, I was being a snotty idiot.  I failed to appreciate, just what magical little treasures won tons can be, and just how much care and effort goes into making them.   Whenever you eat them, you must remember that they are always made by hand, one by one.   The people that make them for you sit for long stretches doing nothing but shaping and molding the little dumplings, one at a time, by hand.   When done right, with care and attention, each one tastes like a little bit of Heaven.   More precisely, "won" means clouds and "ton" means to swallow, so each one is like swallowing a little cloud.    BTW, they should be pronounced like they weigh "1 ton", NOT like you just "won" someone's "ton"sils.

When I got married, my wife and I took our honeymoon on an Alaskan cruise.   While on board ship, I came across won ton soup as a menu option in one of the restaurants.   Out of curiosity, I decided to try a bowl.   What I was served, was a small rice bowl sized bowl of plain chicken broth with nothing else but 2 little dumplings in it.    Could this be right??   Is this really how they serve them on the mainland???  Apparently yes, on the mainland, won ton soup is like a starter course, the bowl of soup you get before your meal.  The plain chicken broth was nothing to speak of, and the won tons were almost all "pi" (the wrapper), with just a tiny hard chunk of meat in the middle.   Needless to say, I walked away extremely unsatisfied.

Lucky, my wife makes the absolute best won tons in the world.   It is perhaps the best dish she makes, and she makes them absolutely perfectly.   Her filling is always generously overstuffed, with pork, large pieces of ha mai (the small dried shrimp), chopped up waterchestnuts and shin choi (salted picked vegetables).   Okay, I don't really know what she puts in her won tons (and even if I did, I wouldn't tell you her secrets).   But I do know that each one of them is meaty and filling.   The pi is never tough, but floppy and slurpable and seems to trap the broth so you get this gush of flavor when eating them.  They are just perfect!

Making won tons, however, is a very time consuming process.   Since she's busy with other things, like trying to take care of all of us in this house, she only makes them on special occasions.  So if she's not going to make them, what restaurant would we go to to get won ton mein that is up to her standards?   Why, right on Waialae, at Hung Won Chinese Restaurant!   They make an absolutely fantastic, old Cantonese style, wor won ton mein (wor being the deluxe version of the dish).   Their won tons are almost (but not quite) as good as my wife's.  Their noodles, are not those thin Hong Kong style noodles, but the heartier, starchier, thicker Cantonese style noodles (the kind the farmers needed to eat to stay full while working the fields).   Their deluxe wor won ton mein is filled with all kinds of vegetables, both Chinese (like won bok and bak choi) and Western (like carrots and broccoli).   Everything blends together to make a hearty, balanced, substantial meal (unlike that dinky bowl on the cruise ship).

Wor Won Ton Mein at Hung Won Chinese Restaurant

If you're not in the mood for won ton mein, Hung Won also makes a fantastic siu yuk (or Roast Pork).  Everyone always says that good siu yuk is all about the skin.   But theirs is so much more than that.   Bad siu yuk is really tough and fatty.  The skin on it would be hard to chew and get stuck in your teeth.   Good siu yuk has, like good kau yuk, has all of its layers work together in harmony.  The skin is crunchy, the meat is tender, and the small amount of fat between the layers would just melt in your mouth moisten everything else.   With really good siu yuk, you don't just want to eat the skin, but eat all the layers in combination to have them work with each other.  And good siu yuk has this fragrant porkiness that lets you know you're eating pork and not some other meat.   Hung Won doesn't always do it right.  If it's old or cold, then it doesn't taste that great.   But when they are on the ball, theirs is among the best.

Roast Pork Rice at Hung Won Chinese Restaurant

Whether having wor won ton mein or siu yuk fan, Hung Won, has that really old school Chinese taste that reminds me of home.   Best of all, the owner always greets us happily and has watched my son grow from a tiny baby to a little boy.   Someday when he's much older, maybe he will reminice about Hung Won and how their won ton mein reminds him of his mom's cooking.


  1. Try using the Macro option on your camera. It's the little icon that looks like a flower. I used to have the same problem when I took food picture for my blog. But, if you use that option, the pics come out much more sharper, clearer, and the colors are brighter.

  2. My fondest memories are of going to a Chinese restaurant in Kaneohe where I grew up. The waitresses would be sitting at one big round table making won ton. Oh how I miss home. I'm enjoying your site. Aloha.