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Soup That Bowls You Over

One man's quest for the perfect won ton min (in America, anyway) ends at Har Lam Kee.

April 15, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Hong Kong, the great street food quest is finding the best bowl of won ton soup in town. It's like chasing down the top pizza in the Bronx, or the mother of all beef sandwiches in Chicago.

At the moment, Har Lam Kee is the leading exponent of won ton soup in Monterey Park . . . or anywhere else in our part of the world, for that matter. The place has only been open a few months--the red flowerpots left over from the grand opening were only recently removed--but won ton soup aficionados are calling it the best place for authentic won ton min (won ton noodle soup) in the whole San Gabriel Valley.

It's a clubby, dimly lit little joint located next to a furniture store. The dining area is crowded with cherrywood tables and square wooden stools. On the walls there are red banners with the names of dishes written out in Chinese. And the place is so busy that it's hard to get a seat here most of the time--which is saying something, when you consider the ferocious restaurant competition it faces in this predominantly Chinese community.

The won tons themselves are delicious, but the secret is really in the broth, which is basically chicken stock. The chefs punch up the flavor with shrimp eggs.

If you order won ton with noodles in soup (#1 on the menu), you get a giant bowl of broth with perfectly cooked noodles, about eight pork- and shrimp-filled won tons, a few pieces of Chinese broccoli . . . and a well-worn plastic spoon. I'm also quite fond of dumplings in soup (#4), a dish known as soei gow in Cantonese. In this case, you don't get any noodles, but you do get some greens and six huge dumplings with a meaty, crunchy filling of fatty pork, large pieces of chopped shrimp and black moss, a delicate Chinese seaweed.

Most customers order soups with noodles as well as won tons, though you do have the option of asking for no noodles. You'll be charged 50 cents more in that case, though, because they make up the difference with extra dumplings. No matter which way you go, you have pickled radishes, chile paste and rice vinegar on your table for doctoring your soup.

But even a soup connoisseur does not live by soup alone, and there is a wide variety of other dishes here. In the morning, you'll see lots of people eating the rice porridge called juk with various mouth-watering toppings--fresh chicken, organ meats, salted pork with preserved eggs.

And during the day, Har Lam Kee offers a full Cantonese menu. One particularly good appetizer is bean curd with spiced salt: big molten-hot cubes of fried tofu with golden brown crusts, which have been rolled in salt spiced with star anise, ginger and coriander. I also like the crunchy fried won tons in sweet-and-sour sauce. This is not the insipid sweet-and-sour sauce of American Cantonese restaurant tradition but a pale red sauce with the tang of vinegar and pineapples.

The menu has about four dozen hot dishes, too. They include hot pots, exotic dishes of venison and goat, and a few vegetables rarely seen in Western kitchens.

The best of the hot pots is goat with dry bean curd: gamy chunks of goat meat (on the bone) in a rich gravy laced with wrinkly, parchment-like dried tofu sheets. It comes with a pink sauce that looks a bit like Thousand Island dressing but sure isn't. It's a mild fermented bean paste, and you may find it an acquired taste--or maybe not. The classic pork rib with spiced salt is also done well, and so is the fried rock cod served with Chinese greens.

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One of the more unusual vegetables is on choy with bean curd sauce. The dish looks like a pile of hollow green reeds ("on choy" literally means hollow vegetable), and they have a pleasant bittersweet finish. If you don't care for the medicinal flavor of the fermented bean curd sauce, you can ask for the vegetable plain.

I don't recommend the deer meat with garden asparagus, intriguing as it sounds; the venison is rather tough and none too flavorful. But any noodle dish will be excellent, especially the dry-fried rice noodles with beef and the wonderful house special chow mein, which you can order Hong Kong-style, fried as crisp as hash browns.

You may not have a spiritual epiphany at this restaurant, but you won't get a better bowl of noodle soup unless you hop on a plane and fly to Asia. As far as I'm concerned, the great Southland won ton soup quest is over.

BE THERE

Har Lam Kee, 150 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park. (626) 288-7299. Open 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $9-$21. What to Get: won ton with noodles in soup, dumplings in soup, rice noodles with beef, deep-fried tofu with spiced salt, goat with dry bean curd hot pot.

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