Every time I've gone to Wonton Gourmet in Cleveland, Ohio, it has always been with a group of friends. And I will contend that eating with a larger group really does maximize the experience. You get to try tastes of a lot of different foods and experiment with the menu; order a few favorites as well as try a new dish or two. Since I was attending the birthday party of a friend tonight in downtown Cleveland, I decided for better or worse to see if I could manage to fill myself up for about the same price as I normally pay when I am out with a crowd.
I got there around 7 pm to discover that the restaurant was about half full. As usual, I was the only non-Asian customer. This might bother some diners; I actually find it encouraging. My premise is that if the majority of the restaurant's clientèle is Asian than the food must be fairly authentic. My entire drive up to Cleveland, I kept thinking of what I was going to order. When I finally got inside and sat down, I perused the wall menu and came up with my strategy: I would be picking some from the "favorites" column and one from the "never tried it before" column.
Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself slightly. Wonton Gourmet is one of those places that does authentic perfectly, but Americanized Chinese food not-so-great. So, if you're looking for a good Sweet and Sour Chicken, I'd pick another more Americanized Chinese restaurant. However, if you want truly authentic Hong Kong style Chinese dishes, THIS is the place to come. There were really three menus. Two were on the table and represented dishes that were always available. The wall menu originally consisted of yellow placards that hung on the walls and contained only Mandarin characters. An enterprising friend of mine actually took photos of the placards, placed them on Flickr and asked his readers to translate the cards. Another friend printed out the annotated (and translated) pictures, and whenever we wanted to order from the wall menu, we used those printouts to actually order our meal.
Apparently enough non-Mandarin speaking customers must have expressed interest in this "special" menu because within the year, all of the yellow placards came down and in their place are cards with a picture of the dish, the English name beneath it and the price. It is now almost ridiculously easy to walk into Wonton Gourmet and have access to all of the wonderful food they offer.
The food at Wonton Gourmet is not generally considered to be spicy. Some dishes will come out of the kitchen with a little bit more spice, but if you are looking to spice up your food, you will need to use this:
There was a jar of chili oil at every table (as well as soy sauce, but honestly, I've never once had to use it). I like spicy food and this was just the ticket to perk up some already wonderful dishes.
Wonton Gourmet serves their food "family style". When dining out alone, this hardly matters much. But in true Chinese style, you placed your entire order at the beginning and as food was finished in the kitchen, it was immediately served to the table. Thus the order in which it came out was not necessarily the same order in which it was ordered.
First up, a true Wonton Gourmet delicacy: Turnip cakes.
I am here to tell you that these were simply amazing. Without a doubt the best I have ever had, anywhere. Crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside with just a bit of chewy texture from the turnips. If I had known that turnips could taste this good, I would've been eating these from the time I could chew solid foods. As good as they are by themselves, if you marry a bit of chili oil with them, they go from amazing to sublime. Here is how I prefer to eat them:
So simple, yet so good. If it's been a while since I've eaten at Wonton Gourmet, this is the dish I start craving. And how fortunate for me that by dining solo tonight, I got to eat all three cakes.
Another favorite starter are the chive potstickers. Again, the combination of textures and flavors made them a must-have dish at every meal. The sweetness from the shrimp and pork balanced against the sharpness from the chives and the saltiness from the dipping sauce provides a real epicurean treat.
Another shot showing the underside of an individual potsticker:
I also enjoy these with a bit of the chili oil as well. They also have non-chive potstickers on the menu, too, if chives aren't your thing. I've tried those as well and they are certainly executed at the same level, but the chives are what put these over the top.
Finally, for my main course, I had the Three Flavor Shrimp Dumpling Soup with Noodles (whew, what a mouthful):
And a close-up photo:
This soup was loaded with ramen-esque style noodles, three different kinds of shrimp dumplings, fresh crunchy greens, and an amazing seafood broth that enticed you to taste it as soon as it was brought to the table. Everything here was exquisitely fresh and the various kinds of shrimp dumplings helped to maintain your interest in this soup from start to finish. Honestly I really could've made a meal just out of the soup. I ended up taking home about half of the soup and about 1/3 of the turnip cakes and potstickers.
So how did the check turn out after all of this amazing food? The bill came to $14.85. This is right about how much I spend when I go out with my friends. It's true that I didn't get to taste as many dishes by myself as when I go with a group, but getting two meals of this caliber for under $15 is a major bargain.
I cannot recommend Wonton Gourmet enough. Here you have essentially what would be a mom and pop restaurant serving something so very unique and relatively inexpensive. I know that Cleveland has a lot to offer to its residents and I know I can enjoy a good meal at Lola, Lolita, The Greenhouse Tavern, Fire, Momocho, (I could go on and on) etc.; this restaurant has shown consistently wonderful results time and time again. And now with the language barrier nearly non-existent, there is nothing stopping you from ordering and enjoying truly wonderful Hong Kong-style Chinese cuisine.