3601 Hempstead Tpke, Levittown
SERVICE: Strictly business
AMBIENCE: Raucous weekends, laid-back otherwise
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., dim sum on weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mall parking. Wheelchair accessible.
The very best wonton soup I’ve ever had is at the Chinese takeout place that sits directly beneath my North Shore apartment, and that is because the very best bowl of wonton soup, naturally, is the one you get by walking down a flight of stairs in your pajamas. The least best wonton soup I’ve had is at Fortune Wheel in Levittown, and the chief sin there is not the broth, like water running through rusty pipes but less flavorful, or the noodles, which have apparently battled a plunger and lost. I don’t even mind the fact that you have to put on clothing to get it. What's annoying is the overall effort required to eat well at Fortune Wheel, or any place where just one in three menu items is commendable. Put another way, you are no more likely to win at Fortune Wheel than “Wheel of Fortune.”
Unless you know the secret.
First, skip the whole sleep-in-on-weekends thing and head to Nassau Mall, looking for a Cantonese eatery surrounded on three sides by a BJ’s Wholesale. (Note: if you pass BJ’s twice you’ve gone too far.) There, from 10 till 3 Saturdays and Sundays — and only then — Fortune Wheel, as buttoned-up and blasé as its clientele during the week, dons Hong Kong drag, morphing into a dim sum parlor of fierce divahood. Out comes the rolling cart, the servers auctioning off plate after plate of dumplings and lotus-wrapped sticky rice, the sesame balls, the spare ribs. The deliciousness rarely stops.
A plate of what looks like fried Easter grass turns out instead to be a crunchy taro cake jazzed up by minced shrimp — crunchy-tender, savory-sweet, fantastic-gone. The turnip cake is no less enchanting for a sweetness and texture that recalls overbaked flan. The pork buns arrive just as they should — fluffy as dinner rolls, hot as fire, perfectly caramelized sweet meat at the core. And the shrimp in rice noodle dumplings — carefully pleated, membranous cocoons of loveliness — disappear almost before tin steamer meets table.
Oh, and here come the spring rolls — actually, you can skip those little C-batteries of grease. Avoid too the grayish-yellow chicken shu mai, brimming with a lifelessness one rarely sees outside the Ajinomoto aisle at Target. (The pork version is better.) But everything else delivered by cart or oversize platter is at least worth a try, and don’t miss the floor show, in which Fortune Wheel’s all-business servers bob and weave through a dining room where calamity awaits around every turn.
And then, Monday morning … it’s gone. The steamed chicken feet wave goodbye, the carriage turns back into a Chinese cabbage, and Fortune Wheel spins from glee to regret. You will say that the restaurant’s 25-plus years of happy existence tells you something, and I will say it tells you that someone’s vermilion carpet badly needs replacing. Indeed, the whole place seems cloaked in ho-hum.
It’s not that excellent Cantonese cooking can’t be found here and there. The stir-fried snow pea shoots with garlic sauce are a triumph of simple preparation and robust flavor at $18.95 a plate, and the salt-and-pepper-style whole flounder shallow-fried to a brittle crisp is just as good. It’s when Fortune Wheel plays it safe and pretends to be like every other Chinese American restaurant that the trouble starts (see wonton soup, above). Young chow fried rice, described by our waiter as “the most famous one,” instantly begged the question famous for what? And leaving aside the issue of whether a dish of boiled shrimp and a couple of exhausted scallops deserves a title like Seafood Delight, understand that Fortune Wheel accepts nothing less than $25.95 for it. There’s a dim sum for you.
Careful inspection of page after laminated page of its weekday menu reveals small-D delights here and there, but the place just isn’t the same. The fish tanks lining the dining room make the same burbling noises, the Chinese lanterns hang just as askew, and the vases of peonies are still plastically perfect in every way. Minus the dim sum flash and fun, however, Fortune Wheel feels sleepy and pajamas-bound, as if biding its time, waiting for the weekend. You should follow its lead.