Just Won Ton sounds like something out of a Saturday Night Live routine, the culinary equivalent of the store that sells Scotch tape and only Scotch tape. But despite its strip-mall/age-of-specialization moniker, Just Won Ton isn't just about wonton, although its rendition of the venerable dumpling is certainly worth experiencing. More than that, it's the place to go for Chinese tamales and Shanghai New Year's cake and other Old World specialties heretofore oblique to the chow fun–sated Westerner. It's a friendly neighborhood resource in one of the Sunset's more remote crannies. It's one of the few Chinese places my Hong Kong–reared friend Diana absolutely approves of. And — OK — it's also about wonton.
People have been wrapping savories in tiny packages of starch for millennia; the filled dumpling is a handy method of consumption that has emerged, in distinct fashion, in every geographic clime. Piroshki, spanakopita, tamales, empanadas, enchiladas, ravioli, knishes, calzones, corn dogs, turnovers, Cornish pasties, and samosas are just a few of the tasty noshes that give fast food a good name while combining, in one tidy packet, the benefits of starch, protein, and the occasional hint of vegetable. But wonton may be the oldest and most revered of the bunch. Like the noodle, its wrappings hail from the cool northern provinces, where the climate is more conducive to wheat fields than to rice paddies; and like the noodle, it traveled southward (and then westward and eastward) to become a taste treat of global significance. Wonton wrappers are made up of wheat flour, beaten egg, salt, and water (unlike the egg roll wrapper, which, like an egg cream, omits the egg). They can be filled with just about anything, but are usually wrapped around pork and seafood (or, if you like your wonton sweet, chopped dates). The whole concoction then gets fried, steamed, or boiled, and enjoyed as dim sum, dipped in vinaigrette or hot mustard — or, most famously, as the piping-hot star attraction of wonton soup, the introduction to Chinese cookery for many an American youngster.
It's in the latter configuration that Just Won Ton's titular specialty predominates. There's nothing quite so satisfying as simmering wonton soup on a crisp autumn evening, especially out along 24th Avenue, a mere couple of miles from the foggy Pacific. Hop off the L Taraval streetcar, walk two blocks south through the dark, quiet streets of the residential Sunset, and glowing off in the distance, tucked into the middle of Vicente, is a tiny oasis (actually a converted home). Filled with hanging plants, three or four framed pastels, and nine tables occupied by happy people eating from fragrant, steaming bowls, Just Won Ton has a bright, lively attitude. This family-owned and -operated establishment has a homey feel to it, as if some kitchen-savvy family up the block decided one evening to open its doors and feed the neighborhood, just for the hell of it. In other words: Soup's on.
Several varieties beckon. First there's your basic wonton soup, in which the house dumplings bob in a light chicken broth with bok choy and noodles. The wontons themselves contain such hefty packets of plump, tender shrimp and spiced ground pork that it's a wonder the delicate wrappers can contain it all. You can jazz up the somewhat unprepossessing broth with the condiments decorating your table: red vinegar, for instance, or the mildly hot and bitter unlabeled variety made of chili oil, soy sauce, fermented black beans, and bits of pickle. The noodles add further heft, but since they're traditionally lengthy and unwieldy (a symbol of longevity), be prepared to hunker down and slurp.
One variation on this standard soup adds slices of pickle and chunks of pork to the equation, resulting in a salty, pungent brew. Another features more than a dozen smooth little fish balls, clean-tasting spheres of barely briny puréed whitefish with the satisfying character of mild sausage meat. A third variation, beef tendon, is a multicourse meal in itself, brimming as it is with chewy, fat-ribboned beef, tender shrimp wontons, nearly translucent noodles, sizzling-hot broth, and the undertone flavors of five-spice and soy.
Enough with the wonton. The Chinese tamale is a marvelous reinterpretation of the Latin American classic, itself a Western version of the Chinese — well, you know. Here, an outside layer of glutinous rice takes the place of the cornmeal wrapping. Inside is one surprise after another: slices of mildly salty Chinese sausage; big chunks of three-layer pork (skin, fat, meat); fresh scallions; and salty, hard-boiled egg yolks. All of the elements seep into the creamy-crusty rice, creating a softball-sized dish of tasty complexity. Another starter, the curried pot sticker, is an additional (dry, fried) variation on the wonton, with a hint of the subcontinent to boot: The curry adds a zesty second level to the ubiquitous pork and cabbage, and after all that soup the crisp hint of grease is a pleasure. The beef stomach, meanwhile, is a slightly chewier, slightly tastier take on tripe, prepared with soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions — but it still takes some getting used to.
One of Just Won Ton's singular entrees is the Shanghai New Year's cake, so named because its main ingredient is a round, steamed pastry traditionally consumed on New Year's Day to ensure good luck throughout the coming year. At some point folks started cutting the leftovers into slices and stir-frying them with other ingredients; today, Chinese-Americans prepare an unsweetened version year round expressly for this purpose. The rice-flour cake, dense and bland, is a good foil for the slightly bitter snow cabbage and richly textured pork chunks that share its wok; the result is a strangely addictive dish. The soy sauce chow mein is simple by contrast: a hefty tangle of rice noodles stir-fried with scallions, ginger, and bean sprouts. All in all it's a rather unexciting dish. So is the rice gruel, a watery version of the creamy Hing Lung prototype, its bits of liver and kidney offering only occasional textural respite. But the variety and high quality of the other dishes, served by an able and attentive staff at rock-bottom prices, make such quibbles almost unbecoming.
Since Just Won Ton is a bit lacking in the dessert department, after our meal we headed to the Ginger Island Cafe at 1300 Noriega for post-dinner sweets of intense individuality. Among other things they serve dun dan, a sweet, ephemeral steamed-egg custard made with ginger juice; white fungus, a chewy bit of cardboard with the appearance of a delicate flower; a cool/silky mango pudding splashed with evaporated milk; and (last but not least) snow frog cream, dried frog fat soaked, steamed, and served in sugar water with red dates and lotus seeds. At $20 per ounce, frog fat is nothing to sneeze at, but give me a bowl of wonton soup any day.