Can soup really be street food?
For much of China, it is when it’s malatang, the tongue-numbing, spicy hotpot served up by street vendors who let you choose the ingredients — often served on skewers — you add into it. Popular in cities like X’ian and Beijing, the fiery soup gets its heat from chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.
Malatang is the featured item on the menu at Wild Ginger, an eight-month-old restaurant on Alameda’s popular food destination, Park Street, by first-time restaurateurs Larry and Tammy Lu. The tiny restaurant has a bit of a mixed personality: the contemporary signage and decor at the front make you think you’re entering a modern Chinese restaurant, but the rest of the space looks like your typical Chinese takeout joint, with a stainless steel butcher-deli station and utilitarian wooden tables and chairs.
The menu, however, is exactly what Larry Lu envisioned. Working in the kitchen, Lu makes the food the way his mother made living in China’s Sichuan Province. The short menu is broken into a malatang section, a few snacks, two types of rou jia mo (Chinese buns or sliders) and a variety of noodle dishes. Note: There are no rice dishes.
When I visited recently for dinner, the staff was friendly and helpful in explaining how to order. For the signature malatang, you check off on a laminated menu the ingredients you want to add to your malatang, which comes in mild or medium spicy. You can add things like lamb slices, several types of mushrooms, rice cakes, lettuce, tofu, beef balls, potato or lotus root.
I recently came back from vacationing in Taipei, where malatang is also a very popular fast-casual option for dinner. In comparison, Wild Ginger’s selection is tame compared to the pork intestines or blood gelatin I ran into in Taiwan. At Wild Ginger, my friend and I selected a simple malatang filled with black fungus, Chinese cabbage, fish balls and tofu. (Prices range from 99 cents to $3.99 per ingredient, which determines the size of your soup.)
The malatang came out looking beautiful with its crimson broth from the spices, and while we ordered medium spicy, it still carried a punch. It wasn’t the tear-inducing spice you might experience from Indian or Thai curries, for example. Instead, you get a tingle on your tongue, which is that numbing effect from the Sichuan peppercorns.
We also tried both options of the rou jia mo — stewed pork and spicy cumin lamb. For both, the thinly sliced meat comes with shredded cucumber in a bun that’s like a flattened English muffin that’s been pan-fried. While I found the lamb to be juicy and the cucumber a nice counterbalance, I wasn’t a fan of the bun, which had a dry texture.
We wanted to try the signature Wild Ginger liangpi, or cold skin noodles in sauce, which is a vegan dish of chilled, thin, flat noodles that are tossed with cucumber and bean sprouts in a special sauce. But they were out of it on this night. So instead we got the pork dumplings in spicy and sour soup ($6.99).
The pork dumplings floated in a bowl of soup that looked similar to the malatang, but with a slight tang of sourness from black vinegar. The dumplings were comforting with a juicy filling, and the sour soup helped cut into the richness of the food. You can request noodles for this dish, which we actually didn’t realize until after the bowl came to our table.
Hankering for noodles, we ordered the pork zha jiang noodles (also $6.99), a dish of thick wheat noodles topped with a fermented bean paste sauce and garnished with julienned cucumbers. Wild Ginger makes its black bean sauce with ground pork and wrinkly noodles that had the right chew.
The zha jiang noodles was my favorite dish of the night, and it may be the best version I’ve had in the Bay Area. The balanced pork sauce had the right amount of oil that allowed everything to lusciously cling to every noodle after I tossed the ingredients before digging in. This is the type of comfort food that makes Wild Ginger a real mom-and-pop shop despite the contemporary name.
After a night of eating spicy food, a palate-cooling dessert would be a good way to end the meal, but there are no desserts at Wild Ginger. Fortunately, there are several Taiwanese bubble tea spots on or near Park Street to match the Chinese meal you just had.
Wild Ginger’s concept can be confusing (Is it authentic? Is it trying to be modern?), but the food is no-fuss and comforting. It’s the type of spot perfect for those who like to explore different types of Chinese cuisine beyond the prevalent Cantonese banquet food or soup dumplings.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.