Good-bye, Mr. Wing

Chen's Golden Palace

530 N. 2nd Street, El Cajon

“Oh, man. Where am I going to get my curry now?”

Jim stands staring at the notice taped to the front door.

“Dear customers,” it begins. “After serving El Cajon for 52 years since 1956, Kip’s will be closed for business as of Sunday, November 23rd, 2008. Thank you very much for your years of patronage.…”

Sigh. RIP Kip.

This was two weeks ago. Jim was waiting for his to-go order. “I’ve been coming for years. It’s what I always get: chicken curry, extra spicy, and egg rolls.”

Dammit, open 52 years and still I miss out. I’d always heard how Kip’s was one of the best-loved eateries of this valley. It’s in the sprawling Town and Country shopping center on Second Street.

So I pop in for one first-last visit, just to see what I missed. You enter between two aquariums. On the left, wow, big purple-spotted piranha and a bunch of oscars and blood parrot fish. On the other side, whoa, a pair of silver fish, each two feet long, with mighty jaws and huge eyes. Arowana, from the Amazon, where they grow to four, maybe six feet long and leap from the water and grab birds and monkeys from trees, according to Belinda the waitress.

Belinda says to sit anywhere, so I take a window seat in one of the plum-colored booths.

Now I see the menu. Kip’s Cafe serves Chinese and Japanese food.

At the table near the kitchen, Jocelyn and Dee, two middle-aged El Cajon women, sit and chat. They haven’t heard the news. Dee looks up from her sweet and sour pork ($8.50), shocked. “I can’t believe it,” she says. “This has been my favorite Chinese place since 1963.”

I order Japanese, the pork teriyaki rice bowl ($5.75) and a crunchy roll, stuffed with salmon and cream cheese ($5.95).

The crunchy roll looks like a giant caterpillar, with brown stripes of teriyaki sauce, tempura crunchies on top, and a great lake of spicy sauce (chile, eggs, garlic, and mayo).

Mr. Wing, the owner, comes out of the kitchen. He’s a happy-looking guy who, turns out, has been working here for the last 28 years. It was his uncle, Kip Tam, who started the place. “We all came from a village near Canton, China, called Tai Shan,” says Wing. “In 1956, El Cajon was also pretty small. A cowboy town, horses, cattle, dusty unpaved roads.” Times have changed for Wing too. “Now I have two and a half acres in Blossom Valley. My wife and I have started a little vineyard there. One acre. We got our second harvest this year, 900 bottles.”

“But why are you closing, when you’re doing so well?” I ask.

“Because the new owner of this shopping center wants to raise our rent by 82 percent,” he says. “Besides, I’m 55. Wing needs to take wing!”

B…but, where are all these folk going to go for their Oriental fix?

Next time I’m here, I get my answer. It’s nighttime, four days before Kip’s closes. The place is blazing with life. Even more crowded. Guess word of the closure’s out. But I keep on walking, looking for someplace else that’s not going to be gone on me next time.

And right in the next shopping center, Madison Plaza, next to a Wings N Things, a red sign shines out with an odd message: “Chinese Cuisine. Fish’n’ Chips.”

It’s a little place, but a warm little place. Actually a warm little palace. The menu says it’s called “Chen’s Golden Palace” (although the phone book, I find later, just says “Chen Golden Palace”), even though gold-and-black fabric wall art is more Indian. Or is it Thai? War elephants rampaging. Wall menus offer everything from $3.95 rice bowls with pork or beef or chicken to $6.95 lunch specials like orange chicken on rice, kung pao chicken, or sweet and sour chicken. Most dinner plates run $8.95. And those fish and chips start at $5.95.

A little lady at the cash register end of the counter notices me. Wow. Her smile lights up the room. Turns out she’s Lao-Chinese. Now my face lights up too. Laos. Favorite place on earth, least when I was a kid. It was the nearest thing to Shangri-la.

Her name’s Em. “We’ve been here since 1992,” she says. She and her husband Doug, and Wen, their son, working there in the kitchen right now. They left Laos in 1990. I just want to start jawing about that country of theirs, with its mountains and mighty muddy Mekong and the freshwater fish that taste so good hooked straight out of the river and cooked over a fire.

“That’s one thing I miss,” says Em. “Freshwater fish. Here you only get saltwater ocean fish. They taste different.”

I ask if they have any Lao dishes. But looks like the nearest thing is Thai spicy shrimp noodles ($8.95). I should just go for the $3.99 rice bowl, but who can resist those big floppy Thai noodles? And what the heck, I get the Thai iced tea too ($3 with boba — tapioca balls — and the wide straw to suck them through).

I go find a seat. The molded benches are red Formica. The floor tile’s red. The little lights at the gold family altar shine red. Em brings the red tray loaded with the steaming noodles. “Try the Sriracha hot sauce on it,” she says. “It has more flavor than the pepper sauce.”

I do. It does. The noodles are sloppy, rico, the shrimp are squelchy, delicious. She brings a little pot of fried rice to act as a dampener to all the heat.

Man, there’s a lot. Noodles, rice, those big shrimp, bits of egg, whole little sprigs of basil, nice big crunchy chunks of green bell pepper, plus milky tea and big tapioca balls.

And then, like Cinderella, gotta rush, catch the last bus to the trolley. Nice to know that even if Kip’s, the El Cajon Chinese icon, is gone, Chen’s is here to pick up the slack, with a little bit of Laos tossed in.

The Place: Chen’s Golden Palace, Chinese Cuisine Fish and Chips, 530 N. Second Street, El Cajon, 619-442-2541
Type of Food: Chinese, Thai
Prices: Chicken teriyaki bowl, $3.95; lunch specials (e.g., orange chicken on rice, kung pao chicken, or sweet and sour chicken), $6.95; Mongolian beef and rice (fried or steamed), $8.95; ma-poh tofu (pork), $8.55; shrimp chow mein, $8.95; two-piece fish and chips, $5.95; pho beef noodle soup, $6.95; Thai spicy fried rice, $8.95
Hours: 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Monday–Saturday; noon–9:00 p.m., Sunday
Buses: 815, 816
Nearest Bus Stop: Jamacha Boulevard and East Main Street

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