Positively 10th Street: Ting Wong Reviewed

Ting Wong is my favorite restaurant in Chinatown—no matter how many times it closes.

Ting Wong | Philadelphia magazine

Ting Wong | Philadelphia magazine

I go to Ting Wong for lunch—hiding out at a sticky table along the wall, hot tea and perfect shrimp congee in front of me. I’ve got a book (something with spaceships and ray guns) in one hand, spoon in the other, and I’m smiling because I’m supposed to be eating at some hotel restaurant a few blocks away, but I got there and hated it (hated the vibe and the look of it and the feel it gave me walking through the door), so I about-faced and retreated here, which, yes, was probably the wrong thing to do (considering my job), but it feels good, like skipping school, so I’m happy.

I go to Ting Wong for an early dinner and everything on the block smells like hot, wet garbage, but my dinner is excellent. On another day, I drop by for a quick plate of roast pork over white rice—the meat pink, honey-sweet but also complex with ginger and garlic and five-spice—just because I’m cutting through Chinatown on my way to somewhere else. The pork needs nothing. It is delicious as it is, fanned over rice, shiny under the harsh lights that seem designed to allow no shadows. But if you’re smart, you’ll ask for a little bowl of chopped ginger and scallion—bright green like pickle relish but so much better.

AT A GLANCE

★★★
Ting Wong
138 North 10th Street, Chinatown
215-928-1883

CUISINE: Chinese

PRICES: $

SNAP JUDGMENT: Ting Wong is a singular argument in favor of the existence of Chinatowns everywhere—the archetypal weird place with dead things hanging in the window. It also happens to be one of the best restaurants in the entire city.

RECOMMENDED: Ginger and scallion noodles for everyone, whole ducks for those who love chewing the bones.

Years ago, before I ever had this job, I knew Ting Wong. Laura and I would come from Denver, from Seattle, to visit her family and, inevitably, end up in Chinatown, cruising the dark streets, looking for fun, noodles, cold Tsing Tao and weirdness. We had landmarks to navigate by—the arch and Penang and the House of Dragons, that place that sold Hello Kitty trinkets for the kid, the other place where I once (drunkenly) bought a wooden sword (because it seemed like a good idea at the time), and Ting Wong, with the ducks hanging in the window. The roast pork fried rice there was better than any fried rice we’d ever had anywhere—different because it wasn’t just junk; just selling off the scrap. Because it tasted so fresh and so, I don’t know … considered? Like pork fried rice wasn’t just on the menu because this was a Chinese restaurant and Chinese restaurants are supposed to have pork fried rice, but because this was great pork fried rice that people really loved and so had earned a place on the (massive, 100-item-deep) menu.

Then I moved here. Got this job. I went to Ting Wong with Lê from Hop Sing Laundromat, and it was like going to a completely different place. He introduced me to the best dish the kitchen does (a beautiful mess of a ginger-and-scallion noodle dish from the Hong Kong Noodles section of the menu, with sautéed Chinese greens folded up at one end of the plate) and taught me how to dress it properly—with red vinegar, soy sauce and red chili oil in a shifting ratio that I will happily spend the rest of my life trying to get right. He taught me that those ducks, those barbecued pork loins, those chickens—everything hanging in the window, around the front-mounted kitchen where the white-jacketed cooks labor over flaming burners—aren’t just there for decoration. You can (and should—seriously, seriously should) just step right up and order them for dinner. A whole duck—fatty and pressed almost flat, with crisp skin that crackles under your teeth and meat that is so tender and delicious (even if you have to spit out the bones like a savage)—is ridiculously cheap. Ten bucks, maybe a little more. You can (and should) order barbecued pork with your fingers, holding them out, a certain distance apart: I want this much.

ting wong ducks croppedAt lunch, Ting Wong was always busy. At dinner, always busy. But I also never once had to wait for a table. The staff, in the aggregate, spoke (and still speaks) enough English to make any menu-based transaction workable, and most casual conversation, so long as it revolves tightly around food, seating, methods of payment, or What’s that weird thing they’re eating at that table over there? The space was, let’s just say, basic. A box with some tables in it, some chairs. In other words, exactly what was necessary and nothing more.

And then, two years ago, Ting Wong closed and I was pissed and heartbroken. So was everyone else who’d found the place, knew it, loved it for exactly what it was—small and crowded and strange and shabby and so, so good. The closure, though, was temporary. Ting Wong reopened after a remodel and a change in management. Lasted a few months. Closed again. Imagine my fury.

This time, people said, it was serious. There was going to be a name change, a menu change, a new owner (who might have been one of the original owners). No one knew for sure.

It reopened (again) in November of 2015. The name was the same. The address, too. The dining room had gotten slightly fancier (a new ceiling, white cloths on the tables) and the menu slightly more expensive (lunch might cost you $12 now instead of $10), but everything else was the same.

For the moment.

Everyone I asked had a different story about what had happened and what was still in the process of happening. Different owners, different management, a new chef who might (or might not) be the original chef who ran the kitchen back in the day. And this chef might have a new menu in mind, too—something more luxe, more Hong Kong-y—but when I asked a waiter, he laughed at me. Nothing was changing, he said. Nothing ever would. But then he let me pay with a credit card, which I’d never been able to do before.

So how does the new-new Ting Wong stack up to the old-new Ting Wong and the OG Ting Wong? The new-new version is better, how’s that? Not by much, because there wasn’t much better it could get, but it certainly hasn’t suffered at all. I miss the sticky tables a little bit (they added character) and the harsh lighting (I like a place where it’s perpetually high noon), but the food, if anything, is even better—which is the only judgment that truly matters. They do a house soup (you have to ask for it) that’s made with all the bits and pieces of meat scraped up from the cutting boards, all that fat, all that meat, and stock from the bones of all the animals the kitchen runs through in a day. It’s murky and looks like dishwater but tastes amazing—one of the most comforting things imaginable. The last duck I had there was the best I’ve ever had from Ting Wong’s kitchen (meaning, probably, one of the best ducks I’ve ever had, period), but that likely had as much to do with the duck itself as it did with the kitchen. The ginger and scallion noodles were exactly as wonderful as they’ve always been.

Honestly, this is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Should you go to Ting Wong? Yes. Today. If you haven’t been there before, be brave. Dive right in. Order anything. Take chances. None of us know how many lunches we’re going to have on this earth, so don’t waste another one sitting at your desk. Go now.

I’ll meet you there.

3 stars – Come from anywhere in the region

Ting Wong [Foobooz]