Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, February 24, 2017-1:18 am
No one “discovers” restaurants. Someone’s always been to a place before you.
Wu’s Wonton King, a straight-up Chinese restaurant on East Broadway, is cut in that very same mold. Just because yours truly happened upon it recently while looking for a pre-theater place to eat in the area doesn’t mean other diners didn’t know about it. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. This is a popular joint in the neighborhood.
But outside the neighborhood? Well, that’s a different story.
See, an establishment can be well known among denizens of the locale in which it’s based but barely recognized outside of it. And I wonder if that’s the case with Wu’s.
Certainly, it doesn’t give the initial impression that it’s a destination eatery. Situated on the corner of the block and outfitted with dusky windows showcasing live seafood in tanks, the place won’t make you turn your head and gasp in aesthetic appreciation. The dismaying design choices continue inside: A small waiting nook toward the front calls attention to the unpretentious plainness of the site, while the walls further in are decorated with large photos of dishes on the menu—presumably meant to stimulate the appetite. Subtlety takes a hiatus as well when it comes to the stark floors and super-bright lighting, though that’s mitigated somewhat with the presence of snappy white tablecloths. Families dine here. You may be given a fork if your black-vested waiter thinks you need one, regardless of whether you ask for it. That’s the way the ball bounces. You can still use chopsticks if you want to.
Tea comes right away, and the little pot contains a zesty brew. You also get a petite dish of salted peanuts as a snack, and they are perfect miniature nibbles … just the right way to start the meal. The menu is sizable and features numerous foodstuffs priced in the teens and beyond—with some even reaching higher—but if you’re looking for a bargain, the appie going by the name “New York No. 1 Wonton” may be the path to tread. Because this is the Wonton King, and you’ve got to go for the eponymous specialty, right? Because that’s what you expect to eat, no?
Boy, will your expectations be pleasantly elevated if you think you’re gonna get some kind of dismal fried compacture sitting in a tiny body of oil. For this offering is nothing of the kind; instead, it’s the type of transcendent noshing experience that may make you call your friends on your dying cell phone and tell them to get their butts down to where you are now and order what you’re having without delay. Indeed, it even looks like something you wouldn’t expect and is served tableside … the type of treatment you’d receive in a fancy restaurant.
Bear in mind, this winning wonton wonder is definitely worthy of presentation at any fancy restaurant—anywhere in the world. And I’ll stand by that assessment until the day I die.
First of all, it looks extraordinary. It arrives in a big soup bowl, which is filled with a translucent broth, plus glistening-green vegetables whose crispness you can detect without even biting into them, as well as dumplings of different colors, shapes and fillings—three varieties in all, with shrimp and pork being the dominant ingredients. Beside you, your waiter scoops some of this liquid into a little cup and packs it with the solid contents before passing it to you. After asking, you learn that the dumpling wrappers are made in-house, and they are ethereal, though strong enough to hold the powerfully flavored meats. In the meantime, scallions and bites of seaweed provide further pep to the stew, which you may want to finish all at once … sans saving any for your dining companions. If you do decide to allow for some room in your stomach for more, there are other treats, including extremely crisp, flaky spring rolls lying on a rather ordinary bed of lettuce (the rolls, to your delight, are as oil-heavy as an electric car), and the fried crispy oyster, which is brought to you in the plural, the mollusks whole and sea-breezy in their golden-brown crusts; that they keep their ocean-based integrity in this form is incredible, a veritable feat of cookery, and you may gobble them up without leaving any for your buddies. Such is the gastronome-eat-gastronome world of delicious culinary adventuring. As Kurt Vonnegut might opine: So it goes.
True friends always remain friends, however, and Wu’s seeks to ensure its customers are happy by supplying some welcome freebies at the end, including a luminous mango gelatin that isn’t too sweet and just fruit-infused enough, as well as a small sample of warm tong sui, the dessert-y soups that seem to be a good fit not only at the end of dinner, but also at any other time of day. Yeah, yeah … your waiter might, perchance, take your plate away before you’ve finished lapping up the juices, and maybe you’ll spot a flailing crab being carried to its cooking destiny from one of the tanks, yet all of that is immaterial when you remember that you’re part of a select association of colleagues when dining at Wu’s Wonton King: People who love terrific food. They’re part of the neighborhood. They’re part of your family.
So will this restaurant after you pay the bill and head on out. For you may as well come back one day in the future like you’d visit a beloved relative and try that wonton soup again. It’s possible you’ll even split it with your friends.
That is, after all, the essence of discovery. That is, after all, the way food should always be.