As a child, making wonton noodle soup was one of my favourite family rituals. My Poh-Poh (maternal grandmother) would make everything from scratch, from the chicken stock, to the wrappers, to the noodles I would help crank out on her stainless steel pasta machine. We’d sit at the kitchen table together and fold the dumplings, filling them carefully with ground pork, dried and sometimes, fresh shrimp. I loved seeing them all lined up on bamboo trays, waiting to be dropped into boiling water. Eating the dish was a comforting confluence of steaming broth, hefty dumplings, and springy noodles.
Wonton noodle soup is a seemingly simple concoction, but requires that each of its elements be on point. Recently, I went in search of the ultimate version in Richmond by visiting two popular spots known for the dish: Tsim Chai Noodles (8251 Westminster Highway) and Max Noodle House (8291 Alexandra Road). Which of the two would rise above in the wonton noodle soup battle?
Tsim Chai Noodles
I arrived just before noon, narrowly beating the line-up that formed after I was seated. I saw people around me hunched over their bowls, oblivious to everything except for their contents. The menu features a variety of wonton soup combinations, including ones with beef brisket, beef tendon, sui gow (a dumpling usually containing a combo of pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots, and wood ear mushrooms), as well as some options with soup on the side, such as wonton with pork knuckle, and wonton with oyster sauce. Rice noodles, thick noodles, and vermicelli can be requested, with no extra charge. I went for the standard wonton noodle soup ($6.50) since I wanted to judge their base version.
I was impressed by the efficient service since I didn’t have to wait long before my bowl arrived. Visually, the dish looked appealing, with the noodles in the centre, four wontons encircling them, and considerable broth.
The broth had good clarity, was quite light in colour, and overall, fairly ordinary. There was some sweetness, but not too much depth of flavour. It was more like a neutral backdrop for the main event.
Meanwhile, the thin noodles were very good, with excellent chew to them.
As for the wontons, Tsim Chai does an impressive job. First of all, these were sizeable dumplings that required a few bites to finish. The neatly pleated wrappers were thin and held their shape (at some restaurants, they go soggy and break apart).
The restaurant uses a mixture of ground pork and shrimp for the wonton filling, with the pork lightly seasoned and not over minced, and the shrimp still slightly crunchy.
The pork to shrimp ratio definitely favoured the pork, but the subtlety of the seasoning kept the shrimp still in play. Overall, these were great wontons that tasted as good as they looked.
Max Noodle House
By the time I got to my next stop, the lunch rush was in full swing, as evidenced by the packed waiting area when I arrived. While I waited for my name to be called, I chatted with a couple women who assured me that I was in for a treat when it came to the wonton noodle soup. Apparently, the restaurant won for Best Wonton Noodles in the 2014 Diners’ Choice for the Chinese Restaurant Awards.
After I was seated, my served didn’t wait long to ask me what I wanted. I think they aim for speedy turn-around given their obvious popularity. The menu also offers a similar range of wonton choices, such as braised beef brisket and tendon wonton noodle soup, and wonton lo mien. Again, I stuck with the unadulterated version ($6.50).
My order arrived almost instantaneously. The bowl was on the smaller side, compared to Tsim Chai’s. However, it was chockfull of noodles and four wontons. There was less care paid to aesthetics, probably due to the rush in the kitchen to meet orders.
The broth in this case had more pronounced flavour and colour, functioning as more of a complement and enhancer of the dish versus a backdrop. Max Noodle House won on the broth front.
The noodles were equally as good as Tsim Chai’s, perfectly cooked with the right firm bite to them.
As for the wontons, they were entirely different beasts than the ones at Tsim Chai. Max Noodle House serves up an all shrimp wonton, with no pork. The result was a much smaller dumpling, which was a one-bite wonder. There was also a lot more excess wrapper (which is thin and holds its shape) since the filling was less substantial.
That being said, the lack of ground pork allowed the spotlight to be on the shrimp, which were satisfyingly crisp, lightly seasoned, and incredibly fresh. Together, their compact size and quality meant that they didn’t last long in my bowl.
Although Max Noodle House put up a tough fight with their pure shrimp wontons, I would have to give the victory to Tsim Chai Noodles. Although they don’t offer a perfect bowl (the broth could be ramped up), they take the lead due to presentation and well-crafted dumplings. While size certainly does not guarantee a win, they have the quality to match it. I was impressed by the attention paid to the folding of the dumplings, as well as to the pork and shrimp mixture that showcased both ingredients with care.