Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Past continues at Folsom’s retro Hop Sing Palace

Old-school egg foo young is served at Hop Sing Palace in Folsom.
Old-school egg foo young is served at Hop Sing Palace in Folsom. apierleoni@sacbee.com

We were trying to recall if we’d ever before seen a sign in front of a Chinese restaurant reading, “Chinese & American food,” and came up with the same answer: No.

But there it was in front of Hop Sing Palace on Historic Sutter Street in Folsom, as if the segregation between Chinese and “American” cuisines has much significance these days. It certainly did once upon a time, when white-bread families found it adventurous to explore the Sunday-dinner menus at Chinese restaurants, but could always fall back on hamburgers if the going got too scary. After all, snow peas, bok choy and water chestnuts were pretty darn exotic in the day.

But why would anyone seek “American” food in a Chinese restaurant in the first place? Even the mainstream Fat family of restaurants group has a website that says, “Fine Asian and American Dining.” For the record, the first dish on Hop Sing’s American menu is – get ready for the irony – Cantonese spareribs, followed by fried chicken, fried prawns, hamburger and cheeseburger (with fries, of course). Charming.

Anyway, Hop Sing Palace opened in 1957 and not much seems to have changed. The founding Lam family was stir-frying chop suey and simmering barbecued pork noodle soup from proprietary recipes decades before the appearances of the nearby Sutter Street Steakhouse and Sutter Street Grill, and the pubs and wine bars that line Historic Sutter Street. It just keeps on doing what it’s always done, ignoring the 16-month, $11 million “revitalization project” that transformed the area into an “entertainment destination” in 2011. Try to find parking on a Saturday night.

Though Hop Sing Palace has been a family affair since Day 1 (“about eight” family members now work there), Lana and Bill Lam have pretty much run things “for a long time,” Lana Lam said on the phone. It was named after “a chef who once cooked for an emperor of China a long, long time ago,” she said. Also, the restaurant’s founder – one of Lana Lam’s relatives – believed it was a lucky name that would assure success. Which it has.

Turning to pop culture, Hop Sing was also the name of the faithful but cantankerous Chinese cook who manned the kitchen for the Cartwright family on the TV series “Bonanza,” which ran from 1959 to 1973 and was partially filmed around Lake Tahoe.

As we recently walked by the Fat Rabbit, the Black Rooster and Samuel Horne’s Tavern, we stepped back in time entering Hop Sing Palace. There, we were greeted by a Christmas tree decorated in part with Chinese-food takeout cartons.

Some of the walls in the foyer are covered in rattan, and the long dining room is decorated with plants, ceramic ginger jars, statuary, taxidermied fish and framed art that hasn’t been repositioned for a while. Whirling fans hang from the high ceiling. The brick walls are painted white, and a huge mirror gives the illusion of a larger space. In total, it’s a very comfortable, unpretentious room resembling an antique still life.

The menu, too, is old school, but we asked anyway: What’s new? “Only the prices (by) a little bit. Everything else is the same,” Lana Lam said.

Who’s the clientele? “Mostly (generations) of families come here,” she said. “Sometimes Grandma sits down and a grandson shows up and says, ‘Hey, Grandma, you’re here!’”

We settled into a big booth with tufted upholstery and watched a steady flow of customers walk in to claim bags and boxes of takeout food. The lengthy and predictable menu is bargain-priced ($4 to $13). The only individual items over $10 are seafood, salt ’n’ pepper pork chop and Peking duck (at $22, the most expensive dish).

Multicourse “Cantonese family-style dinners” range from $9 to $17 per person. The “deluxe dinner for four or more” looks like a feast – chicken-vegetable salad, “special” chow mein, shrimp in lobster sauce, pineapple pork or peanut duck, chicken with white mushrooms, barbecued spareribs, fried prawns and fried rice.

We ordered classic-retro, starting with pot stickers. The six dumplings were dense, but the filling was quite tasty. A nice touch was our waiter’s demonstration of how to make an excellent pot-sticker sauce from the condiments caddy: Two parts hoisin sauce, one part plum sauce, one part hot chili sauce, a splash of white vinegar, mixed until blended and smooth. It was so good we put it on every dish that followed.

Next was so-so wor wonton soup in weak broth, chunky with dumplings, veggies, shrimp and pork. The quantity was there, but the character wasn’t.

The last time we ordered pork egg foo young or chicken chow mein was in previous incarnations, but we ignored our past-life memories and went ahead with those two oldies. The waiter delivered platters heaped with each. The massive portions were hot, freshly prepared and filling. If we were to do it again, we’d skip the “gravy” on the egg foo young, and go for the crispy noodles instead of the pan-fried soft noodles in the chow mein.

In keeping with the retro mode: Mary Tyler Moore played Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” from 1961 to 1966. What was her go-to dish whenever she ordered Chinese food? The answer: moo goo gai pan. You’ll find it for $8.50 as “mushroom chicken” at Hop Sing Palace.

Glutton in Sin City

Sure, the dining scene in Las Vegas is over the top, but it’s about to reach new heights (or depths?) with the January opening of a restaurant called Glutton. The word means “an excessively greedy eater,” which seems to match chef Bradley Manchester’s philosophy as stated in a press release: “I equate the enjoyment of good food with living life to the fullest. Glutton is about satisfying culinary desires and enjoying life’s indulgences.”

The restaurant’s artwork logo shows a button-popping belly (with navel) protruding from a man’s stuffed shirt. After seeing that, perhaps what’s needed to steady the nerves is a drink from the “vibrant bar program,” maybe the one with gin, Cointreau and aquavit called the Glutton for Punishment.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Hop Sing Palace

Location: 805 Sutter St., Folsom

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily; lunch speicals 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays

Food:

Ambiance:

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 985-7309, www.hopsingpalace.com

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