In the soup

New Hong Kong Wok

5019 Freeport Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 454-2828

It’s safe to say that I never would have found New Hong Kong Wok, which shares an undistinguished strip mall at the south end of Freeport Boulevard with several other Chinese restaurants, had an alert reader not tipped me off. It’s a great find, for which I can take no credit at all. I headed there for lunch one day recently, feeling chilled and slightly run-down by the holiday shuffle. I emerged restored, full and determined to go back for dinner—next time with a crowd—so I can sample more of the menu’s offerings.

Actually, it’s not the menu but the walls that interest me. As at many Chinese restaurants, they’re covered in bright pieces of paper with scrawled characters and prices. Some of them are adorned with the odd English word: “New” or “Hot!” (the latter with a small drawing of a chili pepper). One said “Roast Pork,” but they’re all in Chinese otherwise. I can’t read a single calligraphy stroke, so I have no idea what the specials are.

The menu itself also has a short section of dishes without English translations, but most of it is bilingual. And, to be fair, there’s more than enough to keep me busy for a while, with or without sampling the Chinese-only items.

Almost everyone else in the place (all of whom were Asian) was slurping from big white bowls, so I figured soup must be the way to go. The won-ton and barbecued duck noodle soup was filled with crinkly, skinny egg noodles; a chickeny broth laced with sesame oil; a few pieces of bright-green Chinese broccoli; three or four won tons that were so plump they looked about ready to burst; and bits of mahogany-glazed duck.

I confess that my grasp of duck anatomy is shaky, but I believe that most of the chopped, bony bits I had in my bowl came from the neck. There wasn’t a lot of meat (and what there was clung tenaciously to the bones), but there was plenty of skin. The skin, placed so it sailed proudly above the surface of the broth, was sweetly crisp outside and unctuously fatty beneath. This could be good or bad, depending on your tastes. The won tons were deliciously gingery, and the pork filling was speckled with juicy little shrimp. I wouldn’t have complained if there had been more broccoli, but vegetables weren’t really the point.

My husband’s lunch, tossed noodles with barbecued pork and soup, was like a deconstructed version of my own. The broth came in a small bowl; the noodles and slices of pork came on a plate. The pork was densely textured and richly flavored, with a salty-sweet glaze that penetrated the meat throughout. Neither of us was sure how the plate was meant to be eaten. (Should the noodles be dipped in broth? Eaten separately?) Nobody near us had ordered it, so we couldn’t watch and learn. Through trial and error, my husband found that the noodles were better when doctored with soy sauce, and the broth benefited from a generous spoonful of chili paste.

As an appetizer, we had managed to order one thing that wasn’t on the menu: xiao long bao, which a little Internet research had revealed were one of the unknown specials. Xiao long bao—known in English as soup dumplings—are a Shanghai specialty. They look like average, unassuming little steamed dumplings—white with a pleated twist at the top. When you bite into them, there’s a squirt of meaty juice (the “soup” held within). Ours came to the table—piping hot in their bamboo steamer on a bed of shredded cabbage—as we were finishing up our main plates, but we ate them anyway. The wrappers were tender and yielding, the filling nicely textured with roughly chopped pork, and the juice delicious. A little bowl of finely shredded ginger came with them. At the server’s instruction, we filled it with vinegar and used it for dipping the dumplings. This is not a dish that is kind to lipstick (nor, if you’re careless, to your shirt), but New Hong Kong Wok isn’t the kind of place that requires lipstick.

There’s a long drink menu, ranging from oddities like lemon Coke (listed under the hot drinks) to hot or cold pearl milk tea. The hot version is strong, tannic and sweet, with the soft pearls almost melting. There are also iced drinks, including slush-like options. My husband loved the “mix fruit ice,” a sweet, fruity, peach-colored concoction. However, plain hot tea comes to the table the instant you arrive, and, in the end, that might be the best choice.

More than the drinks, I can’t wait to try the other dishes on the menu: the golden cubes of fried tofu with spicy salt that we saw at another table, the sautéed crab with scallions and garlic listed as part of one of the “family dinners,” and all the other tempting options I can’t read on the walls. All I need is a group of willing fellow diners and an interpreter.