In the wide world of Chinese dumplings, wontons sometimes struggle to attract the same sort of attention as crispy pan-fried potstickers or xiao long bao. But it’s time they get their chance in the spotlight.
Wontons, whose name means “swallowing clouds” in Cantonese, have been part of my life since I could eat solid foods. In southern China and Hong Kong where I lived as a young child, there were a dizzying number of restaurants that specialized in them. My family would endlessly debate over which place had the most translucent skins or the best shrimp-to-pork ratio in the filling, and which made the most flavorful broth for wonton soup. I developed a sense for which restaurants simmered their broth for the requisite hours, and which relied on MSG as a shortcut.
Later as an adult, I discovered wontons from other provinces in China that had their own distinct flavors, wrappers, and cooking and serving methods. Here is a guide to four distinct styles of wontons around New York City, and the best places to find them.
Cantonese - Cantonese wontons have thin, translucent skin, and are filled with equal amounts of chopped fresh shrimp and ground pork. The broth should be light with a distinct briny flavor from the dried shrimp used in the simmering. Just the wontons and broth can be filling on their own, but there’s also a noodle soup version, which comes with thin egg noodles that are nice and springy.
Fujianese - The coastal Chinese province of Fuzhou borders Guangdong (formerly known as Canton), and Fujianese wonton soup is similar to Cantonese wonton soup in incorporating seafood flavors into the broth, with a bit of oyster sauce instead of dried shrimp. The wontons are also simpler, with wrappers that are so thin they resemble crisp paper before boiling.
Sichuan - Rather than being served in a soup, Sichuan wontons are doused with a smoky, garlic-infused chili oil and vinegar sauce that’s so good you can slurp it by itself. The filling is usually ground pork, and the ideal sauce has a great balance of hot, sour, salty, and sweet.
Shanghainese - Shanghainese wontons are shaped like little purses and come with a light chicken broth. The broth can be served plain, but it’s even better with small bunches of seaweed added to it.
Since it opened in 2008, this Chinatown stand-by has been serving some of the best Cantonese food in New York. The broth of their wonton noodle soup has the classic intense dried shrimp flavors, and their wontons cradle equal amounts of pork and shrimp in each bite. This is the first place I go when I get homesick for Hong Kong-style comfort food, without needing to hop on a plane.
Sifu Chio is a Cantonese restaurant specializing in wontons and lo mein noodles, and they make one of the most delicious bowls of wonton noodle soup in New York. There are many wonton options at this Flushing spot, but my favorite is the dumpling trio lo mein, which has pork wontons, shrimp wontons, and shrimp and watercress wontons in broth with springy egg noodles. At first glance, the large puffy fried wontons may look like any other, but they’re in a class of their own - airy and crispy, filled with plump shrimp, and served with a tangy and sweet dip that you’ll want to douse over the entire dish.
The Sichuan wontons (called “wontons in chili oil” on the menu) are the first thing you should order at Han Dynasty. Although the spiciness of the sauce can range from pretty mild to numbingly hot, depending on who’s cooking that day, there’s a slight sweetness that helps to balance out the heat. The smaller East Village location tends to be more crowded and usually requires a longer wait, while the spacious Downtown Brooklyn restaurant at Dekalb Market has plenty of seating and is better for groups.
Shu Jiao Fuzhou
At this small Chinatown restaurant, the broth has a faint hint of oyster sauce, while the wontons are small, thin-skinned, and filled with pork and chives with a bit of sweetness. They make a satisfying snack or appetizer, or you can pair them with Shu Jiao Fuzhou’s excellent peanut noodles for a more complete meal.
If you’re craving Sichuan street food, head to this Flushing favorite for the Number 6, a generous serving of their signature spicy wontons. The sauce is smoky from the dried chili crisp, tingling from Sichuan peppercorn, but not so intensely spicy that you’ll need a pile of napkins to wipe sweat from your forehead. What really sets White Bear’s wontons apart are the crisp garlic, scallion, and pickled radish garnishes that provide an added crunch. And when you finish the wontons, feel free to drink the remaining sauce from the plate.
Finding vegan wontons in New York can be more difficult than finding a free cab at 4pm on a weekday. But fortunately, Spicy Moon (with locations in the East Village and West Village) specializes in vegan Sichuan food. The vegetarian wontons (filled with tofu, mushrooms, and cabbage) are juicy, perfectly cooked, and come with plenty of garlicky and smoky chili sauce. You’ll probably want to pour any remaining sauce over other dishes on the menu, like the dan dan noodles or scallion pancakes, which you definitely should.
Queens natives and childhood friends David Kong and Jim Nguyen opened the first location of The Bund in Forest Hills in 2016 to give the neighborhood a place for quality Shanghainese food. In 2019, they opened a second location in Astoria. And at both spots, you can choose from three options for Shanghainese wontons, or just do the smart thing and try them all. The Shanghai jumbo wontons are filled with pork and leeks, with a delicate and lightly-salted broth. The mini pork wontons have a paste-like filling and come with an herbal chicken broth. And the third option with chicken and zucchini instead of pork is less traditional, but perfect for anyone who’d like a slight crunch with each soupy bite.
Located in Bath Beach, Liu’s Shanghai serves both Shanghainese and Cantonese classics in a casual setting with marbled four-top tables. The Shanghai wonton soup has a light chicken broth and egg strips, and can come with or without seaweed. Pair the soup with a plate of the crispy fried wontons in peanut and hot sauce - they’re topped with sweet peanut dust that makes them practically a dessert. And would dumplings for dessert really be such a bad thing?