Whether they know it or not, SF diners are probably familiar with noodles made by Ginger Kong’s family. “We’re the secret behind lots of chefs,” Kong claims. “You might not have heard our name, but if you’ve dined out [in SF], you may have [had our products].” Those names, for the record, are Tin Wah and Mon Sing Noodle Companies, and they happen to be two of the city’s oldest noodle makers.
To spread the word — and promote a bit more name recognition — Kong pushed to include her family’s companies in San Francisco’s legacy business registry. It’s a city honor for businesses more than 30 years old, which entitles them to some financial benefits, including incentives for landlords to renew their leases. But for Kong, it’s mostly a point of pride.
Mon Sing, founded in 1932, specializes in fresh egg and wonton noodles. It was added to the registry in March. Tin Wah, created sometime in the ’40s, is known for Japanese noodles like ramen and udon, and made the list in August. “We’ve been celebrating all year,” Kong says.
Connie and Aaron Kong, Ginger’s parents, purchased Mon Sing in the ’80s and Tin Wah in the ‘90s when its previous owners retired. Ginger’s grandparents worked at Tin Wah after immigrating to the US from Hong Kong, where they learned the noodle business. As with Mon Sing, Tin Wah was originally located in Chinatown, as commemorated in a classic 1940s photo taken by SF photographer Fred Lyon. Both factories have since moved to industrial spaces in the Bayview, occupying neighboring posts at 1950 Innes Ave. #2 and #3.
Ginger Kong won’t divulge the supposedly long list of restaurants using Mon Sing and Tin Wah’s noodles. Some are secretive, and others are sheepish about not making noodles themselves. But San Mateo’s nearly 30-year-old China Bee is proud to have worked with Mon Sing for 25 years.
“All the customers think we make our noodles by hand in house,” says China Bee’s second-generation owner Nancy Bee. “Many people ask, but we say ‘No, they’re custom made for us.’” Mon Sing’s noodles, customized to suit Nancy’s mother’s recipes, are the co-star of its bestselling spicy beef noodle dish, along with a 16-hour beef broth. “They have to have good chew and be fresh,” says Nancy.
Without Mon Sing’s twice-weekly deliveries, Nancy isn’t sure how China Bee could keep going. “The noodles we use, they keep people coming back.”
Mon Sing and Tin Wah noodles are also for sale — their provenance clearly labeled — to home cooks at local markets. Takahashi, a San Mateo grocer established in 1906, has stocked them for years. “When we first started, Ginger [Kong] and her brother [Peter Kong, now the business’ general manager] were just little kids,” says Takahashi Market owner Gene Takahashi, himself a third-generation business owner. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with them all these years.”
Though she won’t release sales or production numbers, Ginger Kong says the noodle businesses are healthy. But their future depends on spreading the word to new customers. “Part is educating the newer generation,” says Kong. “We want to tell people there are fresh artisanal noodles made here in SF, so you don’t have to choose imported stuff.”
Bryan Wilkins, executive chef at at an upscale Market Street food emporium called the Market, recently tried Tin Wah’s noodles for the first time, and he’s a convert. “As soon as they brought them in, I knew we had to have them,” says Wilkins. At the Market, Tin Wah’s wonton skins and ramen noodles “have been selling like crazy.”
“They’ve been around so long because they’re so good,” says Wilkins.