It takes a special type of personality to completely renovate a rundown historic building in Japantown/ the former Chinatown, introduce a cuisine little known even in China and virtually unknown in the Bay Area, and rely on a highly laborious technique to produce their signature fish noodles. The owners could easily have gone the easy route and opened a Hunan or Sichuan restaurant. They easily could have found a dingy little dining room to serve their food like many other Chinese restaurants. They easily could have chosen more profitable food that’s quick to make. But they didn’t. Instead the idealists in them probably went the hardest possible route for a family restaurant. Bay Area got a taste of the Wenzhou specialties on the menu, though not for much longer. The restaurant is closing its doors at the end of the year.
As the owner explained, its hard to sell people $13/ $14 bowl of noodles when the food was little understood and the effort that goes into making these noodles were under-appreciated. The Wenzhou fish ball, or the knocked fish noodle is highly laborious. A chef has to pound the grouper repeatedly into strips for the knocked fish. And unlike the Chao Zhou fishball, the Wenzhou version is relatively obscure as a food item.
The owner also commented that the Chinese population from the coastal provinces from Shanghai to Guangdong appreciated the mellow and nuanced flavors of the cuisine, but the population from interior provinces thought the dishes were bland. More familiar dishes got added to the menu to broaden the restaurant’s appeal, but its not quite enough.
I don’t normally comment on the decor, but Wenzhou’s dining room, particularly the upstairs (2nd picture of the dining room) is tastefully done in modern Chinese design that retains elements of the traditional Suzhou/ Jiangnan architecture style. (Of course, Wenzhou is technically just outside Jiangnan geographically.) That is appreciated and should, in my opinion, be considered in diners’ assessment of the price/ value of the dishes.
I asked the owner what Wenzhou specialties she recommended. Here’re her suggestions.
The Wenzhou knocked fish/ fish meatball noodle soup 温州敲鱼/鱼丸面. This was actually a combination of the two classic Wenzhou noodle soups on the menu, and was a large size. I chatted with her long enough and asked her enough questions about the differences between those two noodles that she offered to do a mix and match for me. The pictures are not very clear. But the flat strips were the knocked fish, and the granules were the fish meatball. Unlike Chao Zhou fishballs where fishes are pounded into pulp before forming into ball along with things like starch, Wenzhou’s version contained visible chunks of grouper hand-‘knocked’ into flat strips and then formed into wide ‘noodle’ strips. The fish meatballs were chunks of pounded grouper formed into a oversized vitamin pill shape and is distinctly fishy in taste. Don’t look for Chao Zhou’s bouncy texture because that’s not the goal. The hot soup base was chicken simmered with a dash of vinegar. Strips of pickled mustard (zha cai) added a bit of unami and slices of carrots and baby bok choy added some color. Its recommended that one stir the soup to distribute the vinegar evenly in the bowl. Enjoyable bowl of noodles.
Wenzhou pita 梅菜干麦饼- the classic Wenzhou street snack. I was worried that mei cai, the fermented vegetable and the main ingredient, may over-dominate the taste. In fact, they could probably dial the mei cai taste up a notch. The mei cai- minced pork combination was not bad.
Black sesame mochi. Not necessarily Wenzhou dish but was recommended as a handmade dish. The gluten rice ball with black sesame filling and black sesame powder sprinkled all over was mildly sweet and luxurious in texture when it was served warm. Could certainly give Shuei-Do, the mochi shop around the corner, and its mochi some stiff competition. Enjoyable.
The attention to detail in the dining room was noticeable- look at the chairs all neatly arranged at an angle. The cleanliness in the dining room and the restroom was impeccable. Those backless chairs probably aren’t that comfortable, however. I got one with a back.
Upstairs. Nice calligraphy too. One would be forgiven to think that he/she is eating in Jiangnan.
Not a fan of the faux-Chinese brush font used in the English logo, though that’s a minor quibble.
The old menu from the long-shuttered Ken Ying Low Restaurant, in the same building in what used to be San Jose’s Chinatown.
I didn’t try the non-Wenzhou specialties added to fill out the menu. The Wenzhou specialties were above average to good. I guess that’s the issue. If they cook knock-out Wenzhou specialties, they can probably educate and overcome the public’s lack of understanding of an obscure cuisine. But they are cooking above-average to good Wenzhou specialties that’s only a few items on the menu and not quite enough to overcome the obstacles. They could have easily thrived if they were cooking the same level of food but more widely-known regional Chinese cuisines (maybe in a different neighborhood also?). Reality wins out at the end unfortunately. And we lose a bit of cuisine diversity as a result.
If I sound a little melodramatic, that’s because it sucks to visit two places on the same day that’s closing soon and does things the old-fashioned way- Wenzhou, and the 71-year old San Jose Tofu Company nearby.