Sunday, May 31, 2009

Back Where I Belong: Wonton Forest, City of Industry

It sucks to be lost.

Like the time we got lost in the Northwestern tip of Maui and were driving on a one lane road on the side of a mountain next to the ocean.

Like the time I made one wrong turn and got lost in Downtown LA's skid row for the first time. (*Disclaimer: Notice I said first time. Don't think I'm I big ol' priss; I drive through it all the time with no problem now.)

Like the time I got lost in Anaheim for oh, 27 months???

OK fine, so what if it's only figuratively speaking? Sue me. Since October 2007 until the day I was let go, I took at least two hours out of my day to drive to this place where I worked around beach people all the time (sorry beach people, I love the beach but I'm a city girl at heart so I've never understood the whole beachy lifestyle thing), where with the exception of a few friends the people I worked with were complete two-faced assholes, where all these two-faced assholes' idea of real Mexican food is Chipotle, and where the nearby dining options were limited to chain restaurants and one mediocre pho joint. I mean, where the hell was I, the Twilight Zone??? Two fucking years I was lost in this hell hole! Two fucking years!

With one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding my Google Map (I don't do Nav- Systems either--I'm a map girl. Nav-Systems are for sissies), I exited the 60 Freeway across from Diamond Plaza in Rowland Heights on my way to my first job interview for the company I work for now. I think I felt my heart jump out of my mouth when I saw the Chinese restaurant signs. Could it really be true that this potential employer was located close to some actual non-chain Asian restaurants? With the much improved food choices as my incentive, I pushed myself to do extra, EXTRA well at that interview. And guess what? I nailed it and landed that job in three days. Sweet.

So yeah, you bet your ass that the first thing I did upon getting that job offer besides going on a rock star lunch tour was do some serious web-tective work as far as where to eat near the office. Thanks to a four star review on Yelp, an inquiry on Chowhound and a very favorable post from the blog Go Ramen, Wonton Forest would be the first of a long list of local restaurants to try. This little restaurant, located in a railroad-track adjacent Smart & Final mini-mall in the City of Industry, would also represent all the positive change that was happening in my life.

When I was lost in Anaheim, I felt like I had the life sucked out of me. Constantly angry. Always tired. Never had time for myself. Looked like shit. Felt like shit. Every day that I was there could have been tagged with the infamous FML. Since I found my way out, er, I mean got booted out, I feel like I've gotten a piece of my life back.

When I was lost in Anaheim, I became somewhat disconnected with my passion for food for a few reasons. One, as I mentioned before, there was nothing great to eat around the office, at least nothing that I could drive to, eat, and drive back from within reasonable time limits. And two, my job was wearing me out so badly that I lost both time and desire for much of my gastronomic pursuits.

When I was lost in Anaheim, the simple goodness of a bowl of wonton noodle soup was nowhere to be found. A few visits to Wonton Forest later, and I realized what I had been missing.

Being Chinese-American, wonton noodle soup is and always has been a staple for me. Maybe it was because my parents secretly put the stuff into my baby bottles, but whatever the reason, I've looked to this dish to warm my stomach and soothe my soul since childhood. Sometimes, my parents would treat me and my brother to a steaming bowl of wonton noodles soup at some Oakland Chinatown restaurant (usually Gum Wah) after we spent the morning lugging several plastic grocery bags and following our parents closely as they weaved in and out of Chinese markets. But more often, my parents would make noodles for us at home. Everything, with the exception of the noodles, was homemade--the soup, the wontons, the toppings--all made from scratch and all made from the heart.

With its minimalist modern decor, Wonton Forest looks more like a mainstream fusion sushi roll joint than a place I'd be able to find a bowl of noodles that is not far from those noodle lunches at home with my family. Like anything made by hand at my family's house, there's always something about small batch operations that lends a certain coarseness to the final product; the wontons that Chef/Owner Paul makes fresh daily are no exception. At my parent's house, no food grinders or mills were used to make their wonton fillings; the pork and shrimp were chopped by hand at my house and though I'm not sure of the exact method to Paul's wonton madness, his wontons' textural imperfections (which trust me, are a good thing here) tell me that there's minimal machine or mass-produced intervention here.

Same goes for their soup which, rather than tasting of MSG and being strained to the hilt as is the case at many larger scale restaurants, has the clean, pure taste of chicken or a beef/chicken combo and made even better by the tiny bits of meat or luscious fat globules that made it past the strainer.

Sit at Wonton Forest's counter and watch as Paul preps each bowl of noodles himself, separating and plumping up the springy egg or rice noodle strands with long chopsticks. Each bowl of noodles' toppings are carefully arranged atop the noodles (something that my parents also always took the time to do) before the soup is poured in. Order their signature Wonton Forest Noodle Soup and you'll get an array of goodies including wontons (duh), yau choy-sum, a soy infused boiled egg, tender slices of pork, scallions and cilantro and fried garlic bits atop the noodles. Or, you can order the Chiu-Chow Noodles and get a slew of meaty and seafood-y goodness arranged carefully around your bowl: shreds of chicken, minced pork, plump shrimp and springy fish balls. Add some of Chef Paul's homemade chili garlic sauce (which is supposedly made in a three-day process and is actually available for purchase, by the way) to your steaming bowl of noodles before you start slurping and add in extra dabs as needed. It's an extra kick that actually enhances the flavor of the soup and all the tasty bits within rather than detracting from or overpowering it. Really good stuff.

Food-aside, this little City of Industry gem has played an important role in bringing me back to my blogging life. The delicious food and super friendly vibe of the first restaurant in my must-try-restaurants-near-work list helped to kick start this part of my life that I had become so detached from. "This is totally doable," I thought to myself after my first visit to Wonton Forest, "Back in Anaheim...not so much." Subsequent lunchtime visits to Wonton Forest for me would include an interview for a foodie documentary (story for another post) and a meetup with fellow bloggers Go Ramen and Pepsi Monster. Would I have ever been able to do that in my previous LOST life and still get all my work done? Hell no.

I was lost, and now am found. Thanks, Wonton Forest, for bringing me home.

Wonton Forest
18230 Gale Ave.
City of Industry, CA 91748
(626) 435-1430
Cash only


weezermonkey said...

Ooh, this looks tasty!

I used to teach SAT prep classes in Rowland Heights waaaaay back when. My fave place for boba was Little Bean in a mall on Colima. You should try it if it's still there! :)

Anjali said...

Isn't it funny how the most soul-deadening jobs are often in places with the fewest good food options? I'm so glad you escaped Anaheim and got your groove -- I mean, HUNGER back!

Gastronomer said...

It sounds like you're in a much better place now -- career-wise, soul-wise, and food-wise. Your words and photos really convey your newfound happiness :-)

pleasurepalate said...

It's great to see that you got your groove back. :) I always find that when you're deprived of something you're very passionate about, it can be a soul drainer and you can lose a part of yourself. It's easy to see that you're completely rejuvinated now. Looking forward to reading more of your foodie prose. :-D

KirkK said...

"Lost in Anaheim for 27 months".That sounds like a great movie title. That noodle house wasn't in that strip mall when we lived in the area. I'm wondering how many times you've been stuck in the traffic on Fullerton?

Diana said...

I'm so glad you found your way out of the Tragic Kingdom and into someplace truly worthy of the nickname, "the happiest place on earth." For your stomach. :)

Paul said...

awsome post and great pictures!

Novy said...

I'm sad to report that they're closing at the end of this month. I'm sure you'll make that interview one hell of a good one.

Daily Gluttony said...

Hey WeezerMonkey,

My mom actually sent me to one of those SAT classes back in the day. I hated it cause it took up my whole Saturday! haha


Thanks! I think nearby food options is going to be a major criteria if & when I ever have to look for a job again!


Thank you so much for the kind words--I am seriously a MUCH happier person!


Thanks, you're telling me! Trust me, I am still drained but it's from chasing my kid around so it's a good-drained. :)


Ugh, I hate Fullerton Road!!! Stupid train tracks & weirdo intersections...takes you 15 min just to drive 2 blocks sometimes! :P


LOL @ "Tragic Kingdom"! Actually if I did work there I'd prolly be closer to more food options. I was in BFE Anaheim like closer to Yorba Linda & Anaheim Hills...absolutely NOTHING good to eat!


Awesomer food! :) You BETTER open up a new place one of these days.


I know. :( I'm so bummed.

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