Fragrant Wonton (Yishang Bienshi)
42 Sinyi Street
Hualien is a small city on the coast of Taiwan, known for some beautiful mountain scenery, and coastal waters. Nearby Taroko Gorge is a burgeoning tourist attraction, and with the completion of the gao-zi – the high speed rail connection, tourists are flooding in from Taipei on a near daily basis. However, scenery aside, culinarily they are famous for two very different dishes – fragrant wontons, and muaji, glutinous rice cakes. Two must tries when you are in Hualien.
It’s interesting how celebrity endorsement can affect the image of a restaurant. There are two very well known wonton houses in Hualien. The aforementioned Fragrant Wonton, that have been in business for over 70 years, and Dai’s Bienshi, a 3rd generation wonton maker making bienshi (mandarin for wonton) since the Japanese occupation. Dai’s, as a result of being the favorite of a former President, is extremely well known. Foodies generally agree that Fragrant Wonton is better, but it doesn’t have the name recognition and insane lineups.
The decor inside neither looks like it’s 70 years old, nor like it’s a top wonton place. Channeling the entire cafeteria vibe, you generally order first, grab a table, and sit and wait at one of many clean tables. Napkins are dispensed on the wall (took me a while to find this), and things are kept quite clean. Not surprisingly, it’s almost always busy.
When you go to order, you generally order a number. This represents the number of bowls of wontons you want. One order is pretty substantial for most people, but if you’re a wonton/bienshi fiend like i am, i suggest two bowls.
Fragrant wontons are renown for their skins, which are silky smooth, yet strong enough to hold in the succulent juices from the meat. Does 70 years teach you anything? Absolutely. The skins are silky, and wonderfully soft without breaking at all – a big no no and a trick i wish i knew. The pork filling is good – filling the mouth with a blast of warm pork flavour.They are generally filled with the meat from the legs – trotters and shank. This is because the leg meat is generally a bit firmer, leading to a nice texture with some bite without being rubbery, while staying lean. The stock they serve the wontons in are also made of pork bones, spare ribs, and pigs legs, a rich stock that is skimmed repeatedly to get rid of an oiliness. Served with celery leaves and fried onion tops, the result is a nice balance of fragrant, yet slightly neutral soup with a fantastic wonton flavour.
Overall, these are some really nice wontons. The cardboard serving vessels and plastic spoons feel a bit off, as i would prefer porcelain – it’s amazing what a difference in texture you feel using a plastic utensil, but that’s a very small quibble. Im not sure they are good enough to make a special trip to Hualien for, but if you love wontons/bienshi, and you happen to be in the area, don’t leave town without trying Fragrant Wonton.