Rambling about Food and King Wah in Downtown Oakland

kingwahLast month, a weekend trip to Los Angeles reacquainted me with a couple of my old favorites, Paco’s Tacos on Centinela and Tito’s Tacos on Washington Boulevard. Angelinos have known about both of these places for years, and frankly, I mention them here only in homage, not as some great undiscovered secret. After all, the real culinary secrets are cherished by locals themsleves, and I no longer fit into that category. In a perfect world, my visit to Los Angeles would’ve included several other can’t-miss spots, but my list of old haunts is simply too long and my time in Southern California is always too short.

Years ago, when I was preparing to leave Southern California to attend chef school, I spent my last several weeks canvassing Los Angeles, trying to revisit all of the restaurants that I would miss the most. Even then, I didn’t budget myself nearly enough time. I had lived in Los Angeles for more than 10 years, which meant that there were bound to be a few oversights. I think I had just become settled in Hyde Park, NY — barely a culinary student — when I realized that I had never revisited Versailles down on Venice Boulevard. I immediately began to crave their Cuban roast pork, which was now more than 3,000 miles away.

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Los Angeles remains a sprawling empire, densely populated with a network of strip-malls, which in turn, are dotted with endless little ethnic restaurants. How else could the city feed its 10 million people? With such an immense population, there will always be new restaurants which, in the best circumstances, proudly offer regional ethnic cuisine. Likewise, eating in Los Angeles means overcoming the strip-mall stigma: just because a restaurant is sandwiched between a laundromat and a nail salon doesn’t mean it can’t still be authentic and delicious.

This notion became all the more salient to me three weeks ago, as I was headed to the Burbank Airport to catch my flight back to the Bay Area. Along the way, we stopped in to eat at Phó 999 in Van Nuys. Like so many of the Southland’s best Asian eateries, the restaurant was tucked away in a strip mall, extremely incognito, probably crammed alongside a cell phone store and one of those seedy “payday advance” operations (although, honestly, I cannot recall for sure). Being in Van Nuys, Phó 999 was not one of my old stand-bys — I had never even heard of it — but it was the favorite of a trusted friend who lived in the area. For an outsider like myself, that was reason enough to visit.

At Phó 999, the beef phó is both outstanding and plentiful, with broth so rich and delicious that it inspired me to find a similar version in Northen California. Coincidentally, I had been eating a lot of ramen dishes at Katana-ya in San Francisco, so my recent fixation with Asian soups was already well-established. Although I did have phó many times while I was living in Los Angeles, the version at Phó 999 really demanded my attention, and it made me suspect that perhaps I just wasn’t eating great phó beforehand.

I mentioned that there certainly must be a place similar to Phó 999 in the Bay Area, and my friend remembered a place that he used to frequent in Downtown Oakland, Phó Hoa Binh. Naturally, I followed this lead when I returned home, trekking to Oakland’s Chinatown, only to discover that Phó Hoa Binh was no longer there. I wasn’t tremendously surprised, since many of these places seem to be ephemeral in nature. I strolled the neighborhood between Franklin and Webster, hoping that maybe the restaurant had simply relocated, which these places are also prone to do. But alas, no dice; I suddenly found myself without any back-up plans for lunch.

Although I had phó on my mind, the outlook for this dish seemed rather bleak. Ultimately, after scrutinizing every hole-in-the-wall restaurant within a five-block radius, I decided to go to King Wah, which was right next door to where Phó Hoa Binh used to be. King Wah looked as if it had been there forever, with a paper menu scotch-taped to the window and an “Open” sign that was chipped and yellowed with age. Being in Chinatown, that was good enough for me. At the very least, this place had outlasted its former neighbor, and probably a string of neighbors before that.

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There was an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” — from one of the later seasons, in color — where Aunt Bee invests in a Chinese restaurant. I was instantly reminded of this episode as soon as I stepped into King Wah. The entire place is a time capsule, with dark wood paneling and an undeniable late-60s vibe. People often talk about Asian fusion these days, but the great irony is that Chinese food had been Americanized very early on (just google the origins of “chop suey”). Although I was originally after authenticity, I sensed that I was about to encounter Chinese-American antiquity. Even the servers at King Wah hailed from a former generation. And so I did the only logical thing I could: I ordered a bowl of shrimp wonton soup.

In many ways, King Wah’s shrimp wonton soup was like every wonton soup I have ever eaten, but perhaps just a little bit better. The wontons — each large enough to drape over the spoon — were both abundant and delicious, with the slippery noodle-consistency of large oysters. The broth was spot-on, perfectly seasoned, and would have made a tremendous base for any style of soup. Water chestnuts, carrots and celery provided a nice textural contrast to the straw mushrooms and the wontons themselves. Everything was in harmony.

Wonton soup is a simple dish, but that should never disqualify its greatness. It’s wonderful to revisit an old classic from time to time, and although I had been looking forward to Phó Hoa Binh, I was thankful for the longevity of places like King Wah. Certainly, given its impressive tenure in Chinatown, King Wah must be an old favorite to many — perhaps even a favorite among longtime locals. These types of places define comfort food by keeping things simple, delicious, and consistent. King Wah, with its timeless, throw-back appeal, is just the sort of place where you’re likely to have the most faith in your fortune cookie.

Hopper's

Chop Suey, Edward Hopper, 1929

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