Beloved chow mein joints fuel American neighborhoods as surely as public works or supermarkets. When the second wave of Chinese immigration began in the mid-20th century, the cuisine the newcomers brought was a boon for wary American palates. Cantonese food was marked by simple steamed and stir-fried proteins and vegetables with little spice and mild flavors. It still reigns supreme as the go-to Chinese for America.
So while trendy restaurants come and trendy restaurants go, chow mein restaurants remain staunchly the same. They hunker relatively unnoticed to tourists or passersby, but for the denizens of those neighborhoods, they are essential.
Golden Chow Mein on West Seventh Street is such a place. Like much of the neighborhood, it's a time capsule. The deceptively abundant 34 seats are wedged into a tiny dining room, which is decked out in the decidedly un-hip color scheme of fire-engine red on white. Like the 118-year-old West Seventh Pharmacy across the street, which still sells the likes of pink elephant ceramic salt and pepper shakers, it's remained virtually unchanged in 29 years.
Most of these hole-in-the-wall spots would not be considered destination-worthy, but Golden is an outlier. Aside from the "quick and economic" chow mein, ringing in at just $4.50 to $5, virtually every menu item is made from scratch. If you've got a couple extra minutes and a couple extra dollars, go the made-to-order route.
To some, chow mein brings sheer comfort-food nirvana; for others, it conjures bad memories of the school cafeteria. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, know that chow mein is different at Golden. Stir-fried meat of your choice and carefully cut vegetables are bound in a glossy oyster-soy sauce, served over fluffy white rice with individual grains. The gravy isn't an off-putting army green, but instead a pleasant ochre that suggests vigor. Bound within, find pea pods, celery, water chestnuts, and mushrooms that taste like their individual selves, instead of a heaping glop of sadness.
Or try the chicken almond ding, probably the best bet if you've donned your foodie glasses. Abundant and high-quality almonds sit proudly upon fresh, never canned stir-fried vegetables and chicken cooked in butter. A rich nuttiness permeates the whole dish. It feels almost unfair to push it into a takeout box.
The wizard behind the wok (he's famously shy and rarely comes out of the kitchen) is Qu Ng, who emigrated from communist China in 1979. After working in rice paddies, basically as a slave, for most of his life, he arrived in Minnesota and joined his brother in the kitchen at Leo's Chow Mein, another beloved St. Paul institution. But Ng had a natural penchant for cooking, and it became clear he'd need his own place. After saving every penny, he opened Golden in April 1987.
Like much of the neighborhood, Ng refuses to buckle under the pressure of passing fads. He keeps his original Cantonese recipes close at hand, and has added only seven items in three decades. See, for instance, the sesame chicken, handwritten under the "sweet and sour" section of the menu. Don't call it General Tso's just because every hipster has a nostalgic hankering for that beloved dish; here it's sweet, sour, saucy, and glossy, not spicy. It's garnished only at the end with crisp sesame seed, a flourish as gourmand as finishing salt.
Golden is also the place to turn for some of the best fried chicken wings anywhere. A distinctive but delicate marinade of oyster sauce, ginger, soy, and Chinese spice lingers beneath batter that's both fragile and assertive. The cream cheese wontons are fried to order, not double-fried the way they are as a time-saving measure in lesser establishments. The two-person kitchen hand-rolls about 500 egg rolls weekly. The cooler is empty by night, and they start anew each morning. After 29 years Ng has the systems down to a science.
The hand-stenciled menu board above the counter is one part relic, one part work of art, all parts alive and well. On a busy day they could serve up to a couple hundred customers from this modest hole-in-the wall. And while the prices on that signage have been painted over, they haven't been painted over much. Nothing exceeds $10. When the wholesale cost of celery went up manifold a few years ago, they were giving away the chow mein for less money than it cost them to make it, out of a refusal to raise the price.
This strategy has kept West Enders well fed for decades. Longtime server, sometime manager, and unofficial historian of the restaurant Mary Erjavec says she's occasionally waited on five generations of individual families.
At Golden, that's the only trend that seems destined to continue. While their clientele was once 90 percent regulars, Erjavec says they've seen an enormous wave of new faces thanks to the nearby Schmidt Brewery condominium project. Artists now live where dads once made beer. Change is inevitable, even on the West End.
There are few places of true democracy left in the food world, places where a family of four can eat, probably for a couple of days, for under $30, and where a hip artist's loft dweller can get an easygoing and quality craving fix. And everyone can be equally happy. Oh, so happy.
Golden Chow Mein
1105 W. Seventh St., St. Paul