Epicurious Eating: Kip’s Café
Invasion of the El Cajonians
Published Thursday, 01-Apr-2010 in issue 1162
First there was the shocking death announcement. Then a year of mourning followed. And like some Biblical miracle with a most remarkable twist, Kip’s Café rose from the dead, but only to leave behind its sacred roots in El Cajon for a radically new life in central Hillcrest.
Famous for its egg foo yung and orange chicken since 1956, at a time when going out for Chinese food equated to a culinary adventure, Kip’s secured a formidable foothold in El Cajon and endeared itself to generations of customers. But in November of 2008, the restaurant’s landlord doubled the rent, and rather than hike meal prices in a sputtering economy, Kip’s owner Wing Tam decided to call it quits and enter into retirement.
An outpouring of disbelief and sympathy ensued. For diehard fans of Kip’s time-honored wok specialties and unbeatable fried rice, it was the end of glorious era.
Then in a surprise twist, Tam became bored in retirement and learned of the vacancy on Fourth Avenue in Hillcrest left behind by Indian Princess. Still more affordable than the digs he walked away from on Second Avenue in El Cajon, his family seized the opportunity to give it another go. Using Facebook and mini vans plastered with signage announcing his resurrection, East County consumers practically threw a ticker-tape parade over the news. And they haven’t thought twice about venturing into the gayborhood to recapture their chop sticks.
So far, about 75 percent of new revenues stem from El Cajon patrons, according to Tam. During our visit, we might have guessed 100 percent based on the number of patrons we overheard expressing their joy to the staff over how much they missed the place. We picked up on other clues as well, though by less scientific means.
The new Kip’s is sleeker and brighter, offering a grand elongated entranceway lined with tables that leads into three additional dining areas in the back. Retro pendant lights retained from the original location dangle above a wall of booths, adding interest to an otherwise modern design. As our transplanted waiter confessed when referring to the dingy, beat-up atmosphere of the former location, “Our aquariums were nicer than the restaurant.”
Kip’s menu brims with classic Hong Kong dishes that we’ve all come to know over the decades, spanning from hot braised shrimp and kung pao chicken to beef with oyster sauce and a litany of lo meins. There is also a page of Japanese specialties containing lusciously fragrant ginger pork served as a complete meal with rice, salad and marinated cucumbers on a bento platter.
When given the choice of white or fried rice that accompanies nearly all of the Chinese dishes — go with the fried and prepare for euphoria. Loaded with “wok breath,” a term used to describe Asian foods infused with smokiness from high-heat cooking, the rice is previously simmered in soy sauce for about two hours before it re-enters the wok with fresh eggs. After just one forkful, you’ll understand why Kip’s used to sell 150 pounds of the stuff per day when it operated in El Cajon.
My companion’s egg flower soup proved more flavorful and medicinal-tasting than the hot-and-sour soup, which left me craving more spicy heat – too safe a recipe for my liking. By default, the kitchen uses caution across the board. An appetizer of garlic-chili shrimp, presented colorfully in a white boat dish with scallions and minced garlic, could have used more chilies from the start of their sauté.
We continued with items printed in red, which denote hotness, but still without many sparks. Nonetheless, the kitchen’s signature orange chicken won us over. It’s less syrupy than standard fast-food versions and contains larger chunks of meat encased in sturdier, darker batter.
Szechuan scallops were also memorable due to their large, glistening quality (not as fresh as day boaters, but still pearly and plenty sweet). They’re served with a good measure of green onions and bell peppers, albeit in a timid red sauce that probably wowed diners from the late 1950s straight out of their culinary comfort zones.
And that is exactly what makes Kip’s a fun dining experience. Both the food and casual hospitality seem lifted from a page in dining history, leaving us with fond memories of when our parents said, “To hell with meatloaf tonight. We’re going out for Chinese,” thus easing us into cuisine of a different order, served family style by humble folk from a far-away land.
Kip’s is now ours, accessible to urbanites, and the kind of restaurant where you discover a favorite dish (or three) and keep coming back for more. Just ask anyone who grew up in El Cajon, and they’ll wax nostalgic over their most beloved menu items faster than you can crack open a fortune cookie.