Whenever I’m asked about my favorite foods, wontons always make the list—no matter how often the rest of the roster changes with my fickle tastes. My very first culinary memory involves a bowl of wonton noodle soup at Chinatown’s Mayflower Restaurant on Hill Street (it’s no longer at that location). The joy of nibbling into the slippery wonton wrappers—thinner and more refined than cumbersome dumpling wrappers—and revealing snappy pieces of shrimp with tender pork was a life shaping experience. Even today, whenever I find myself chewing on a wonton, the memory of my very first one comes rushing in like a gullet full of wonton soup.
But even a wonton devotee like myself needs, every so often, to spice things up. And when that need strikes I head for Sichuan wontons in chili oil, also known as hong you chao shou, which translates into “red oil crossed arms.” (“Crossed arms” refers to people crossing their arms to stay warm in cold weather.)
One of the best places in L.A. to get crossed by these spicy wontons is at Reseda’s Tampa Garden Chinese Delight. This hole-in-the-wall dumpling house constructs a pretty straightforward version of the dish, with pork-filled wontons dunked in an oily chili sauce. The traditional sesame seeds, which are usually found scattered over the top, are absent, and I miss the smokiness and crunchy texture. But the kitchen more than compensates with a pungent, gritty, and spicy fermented bean sauce that makes for the most well-rounded spicy wonton I’ve ever eaten.
Sometimes favorite foods rooted in childhood are only seasoned well by the flavor of nostalgia, but in my case the wontons are really as good as I remember—only now they’re a bit saucier and spicier, just like me.
Tampa Garden Chinese Delight, 8241 Tampa Ave., Reseda, TampaGardenChineseDelight.com