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April 2017

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Lim’s Cafe – Retro or Relic?

Serve piping hot, with a pitcher of Soy Sauce for those who want a higher and more truly Chinese flavor. - From the instructions for Chinese Fried Rice, Sunset Magazine, 1936

Back in 1933 when Lim's opened, Americans were afraid of Chinese food. It could be argued they weren't wild about the Chinese people themselves and the fallout from that fell on the food, but that's a discussion for another time and place. In addition to quasi-Chinese dishes, restaurateurs added some foods familiar to Americans to their menus. BLTs, hot roast beef sandwiches, cottage cheese and canned peaches were borrowed from diners and became staples in a lot of Chinese-American cafes.

Over the decades, Americans gradually became more familiar with the formerly scary ingredients common to Asian cookery - sesame oil, fresh ginger, vegetables like winter melon and tatsoi, and - yes - soy sauce, which became an ingredient instead of a sauce. Some of the old-style cafes closed. Some adapted to changing tastes, adding Mongolian lamb and Buddha's Jewels to their menus. And a few refused to change at all. Lim's Cafe is one of those.

The menu is half Chinese, half American. The Chinese dishes are things like chop suey, chow mein, etc., - and are organized that way on the menu, rather than by beef, chicken, vegetables, etc. American choices include Chip Steak with French fries ($6.50), Full Order of Tomatoes ($5.00), and Denver Sandwich ($6.50) - all very retro items. There's a dinner menu as well - Fried Shrimp Dinner ($14.25), Grilled Pork Chops ($10.50), New York Steak ($16.00). You get the idea. The tropical drinks list includes the usual Mai Tai and Pina Colada, but also the Ding Ho ("Feeling Blue? Try One of These and It'll Pick You Up") and the Moon of Delight ("Very Mild, We Recommend for Lady").

When Femme de Joie first visited, she stood uncertainly near the door until a waitress yelled to sit anywhere. She'd hardly sat down before a waitress appeared at the table with water, ready to take the order. Apparently the vast majority of Lim's customers have the menu memorized.

Nearby, a young couple exulted over their lunch. He: "I'm so glad we didn't go to Grand Buffet!" She, to waitress: "This is his first time here!" Waitress. "If I'd known it was your first time, I would have warned you. It's addicting! Almost all our customers have been here before."

In a fit of retro nostalgia, M. de Joie ordered Pork Chop Suey, simply because it had been so long since the last time she's had it, she'd forgotten what it tasted like. The waitress brought squeeze bottles of ketchup and hot mustard, and asked if M. de Joie required a plate to mix rice and chop suey together. No.

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Chop Suey, $7.50

Chop suey was composed of very freshly cooked bean sprouts - a LOT of bean sprouts - bok choy, carrots, pork, bound with a thick cornstarch sauce, along with a very small bowl of steamed rice. No seasonings such as ginger or garlic had been added. It was freshly cooked and hot, but they forgot to add any taste.

On Femme de Joie's second visit, a nearby table of elderly gentlemen discussed baseball at great length, especially the Giants, as well as each other. "Bob, you're lookin' good." "Yup. 82 next week." "82? You don't look a day over... 74." They were clearly regulars, exchanging razzing with the waitress. They had the menu memorized.

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Chinese BBQ ribs, $8.75 appetizer

A large portion of pork ribs was served with a small mound of steamed rice. While the ribs were perfectly cooked and very moist without being greasy, after a few bites M. de Joie became aware of an odd off-taste. It may have been something brushed on the rubs as they were cooking. After a few more bites, the odd taste morphed into a not-tasty taste. This is where those bottles of ketchup and hot mustard came in handy.

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Cashew chicken, $9.00

Again, a generous portion of food, freshly cooked and colorful. But there was a large amount of very overcooked bok choy stems and celery, no seasonings, and the cashews had just been dumped unceremoniously on top of the completed dish. Bland, bland, bland.

The third time M. de Joie dined at Lim's, she sat near a man who was clearly enjoying his food. He did not attempt to disguise his moans, slurping, and lipsmacking. Thinking back now, perhaps she should have said, "I'll have what he's having." Instead, Femme de Joie ordered one of the four lunch specials always listed on a card on each table.

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Special #1 - pork chow mein, egg foo yong, fried rice, $5.60

At first glance, there appeared to be a salad on the plate, but that turned out to be the chow mein. A more truthful name would be Soggy Cabbage on Lengths of Chewy Stuff. There was a small sprinkling of shredded Chinese pork on top; a powerful taste of star anise fairly overwhelmed the cabbage. Fried rice was nothing more than overcooked rice with a lot of soy sauce. At least the egg foo yong was harmless - there were shreds of an unknown green vegetable inside but there was simply no seasoning at all, not even salt, and it was blanketed heavily with a brown sauce that owed a lot to a packet.

Femme de Joie can understand some of the allure of Lim's. It's very cheap and you get lots of food. Service is very fast and very friendly. The retro ambiance can be charming in a late-night diner sort of way. And if you grew up here, you probably have fond memories of meals shared with family and friends.

M. de Joie has talked to numerous people who state matter-of-factly that Lim's has the best Chinese food around, so it does have a solid fan base. But M. de Joie finds the adulation given Lim's inexplicable and mystifying. In saying so, she's aware she's trampling on feelings and toes and happy memories, but there is far, far better Chinese food to be found in Redding.

Lim's Cafe, 592 North Market Street, Redding, CA. 530-241-9747 or 530-243-2991. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Open 7:00 AM - 9:00 PM, Monday-Thursday, 7:00 AM - 10:00 PM Friday and Saturday. Cash, cards, no checks. Small parking lot behind restaurant. Full bar. Vegetarian and vegan options.

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