Menuplease: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Chamberlain, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

Femme de Joie
Femme de Joie's first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.
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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Kathy says:

    I think I have a food memory of every dish that was describe! I grew up in Redding in the 1960-70's and dining out was fairly rare but if we did, good chance it was Lim's Cafe. As an adult I moved out of Redding but guess where I took my grandmother's for dinner when I came home for visits. Yep, Lim's Cafe. Is it the best food, no, but gosh, the memories are wonderful and they can really add flavor to any meal!! Thanks of the ride down memory lane!!

  2. Avatar EasternShastaCounty says:

    Lim's had been highly recommended to us; so we tried it on one of our trips to Redding several years ago. Once was enough. Chung King from a can had more flavor and texture than what was served — and we stopped eating Chung King 50 years ago.

  3. Avatar CoachBob says:

    Well, I go to Lim's on rare occasions and don't mind it. I guess I tolerate it, would be more accurate, 'long as it isn't on a regular basis. I never go alone, so it's really the company I keep that makes it "okay".

    Tell you what I miss, however. Willie's "Far East Cafe". Being as I've been in this town since '53, Willie was one of the most colorful people ever. And he had wonderful food. Since Willie died and the new folks took over (keeping the name to the dismay of Willie's family), the place has gone straight to hell.

    Best memory of Willie's Far East: Order the "half-order" of prawns and you always got the full order. Every time. Order the onion rings and you got a whole white onion, coated in Willie's own batter…same as the prawns were dipped in. Filled the entire plate.

    Funny, I don't have any Lim's memories (other than going to school with Ronnie Lim at Cypress through 3rd grade).

    Thanks for reading this far…..CoachBob

  4. Avatar Name says:

    Chu's is better

  5. Avatar KB says:

    I have dined at Lims once, and have to admit I too had mixed feelings. The retro feel was fun, and the meal although probably not the best was affordable and felt kind of down home. The service was fast and friendly, and we even caught a glimps of a local celebrity, which was a kick. One thing that was strange, I ordered some cottage cheese for my 2 year old and ended up with a the largest portion of cottage cheese I have ever seen. But ya, it was kind of like a Sunset Magazine scene from 1956.

  6. Avatar Toldyouso says:

    Lim's seems to have a Major problem with Cockroaches.

    No Thanks.

    The County Food Inspector is your friend people.

    http://www.co.shasta.ca.us/EHI/frmPubInspViol.asp

  7. Avatar Ginny says:

    Remembering the soy sauce of my childhood is funny now. But at the time, in the 1930s, with my parents, and my father's sometimes sick sense of humor, it was traumatic for me. My father called soy sauce "Bug Juice!"

    I cried and cried. Refused to eat anything, even though the very nice Chinese restaurant in San Jose allowed a sad, scared, crying little 4 or 5 year old into the kitchen to see that there was nothing that wasn't good food and most of all — no bugs. I went home hungry and sad.

    Needless to say, it took me years to want to eat in a Chinese restaurant, and then longer to try the "Bug Juice". Now I use soy sauce in many dishes.

    The only way to go to a Chinese restaurant, though, if you are not sure about the food is to go with the leader of one Tong Society. Yeah! Talk about great food. If it wasn't to the person's acceptance, back it went. One time the man went back to the kitchen and told the cook how to cook the food ordered. Lots of bows, too, when all served, with many smiles by the waiter.

    Lim's is not that great, but is a friendly place where I ate once with a fishing group of guys from the San Jose area. The fun of it was all the crazy and some serious conversations, including talking to one of the fishermen who was a prostate cancer survivor. We talked cancer, prostate cancer in particular as my husband had it before dying from another type of cancer, and Chuck's Hats for Chemo. So all an all, Lim's wasn't a total disappointment.

  8. Avatar jacki g says:

    Femme de Joie rocks, as usual…

  9. Avatar Wes & Bea says:

    We go to Lims Tue. night she for their check. salade and me for their brakefast. Bon. sees us hit the door and supper is started. If we are not seen by her at the door she told Bon. your boyfriend is here.

  10. Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

    While the food may be bad, I really hope they never close down. We lose so many old institutions in Redding and perhaps one day someone will turn things around and make it great. But that can never happen if they close the doors and fade away.

    Seeing that big neon sign in front of that restaurant comforts me in a funny way.

  11. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    Lim's is a Redding treasure. It's a place where people meet and eat. I know one group of people who have met at Lim's for lunch for around 30 years. The food is good and the prices are reasonable.

    The Chinese influence on the Chinese dishes at Lim's is as strong as the Mexican influence is on dishes in most Redding Mexican restaurants. It's not close to authentic, but it fits the bill.

  12. Avatar Budd Hodges says:

    Femme…I love Lim's and I think their authenic Chinese food tells the tale. If you've been open since 1938 you've been doing it right. They're also very good at advertising.

  13. Avatar Name says:

    Good review though. Very nice to see the truth, rather than the hyped yellow journalistic drivel claptrap that comes from another local publication whenever they review ANY establishment.

    • One of my favorite topics.

      Not to put too fine a point on it, but …

      Femme de Joie is THE only authentic restaurant reviewer in the north state. She is anonymous. She visits multiple times and tries multiple dishes. She is balanced and fair. She is a foodie, an excellent cook and a damn great writer. 🙂

      • Avatar Scott Lyon says:

        Does Femme always write in the 3rd person? I find it hard to take a restaurant review seriously if the writer won't or can't write a proper narrative.

        • Actually, it's quite common for a clever writer to adopt a third-person narrative when assuming another persona, such as Miss Manners, for example, or Femme de Joie.

  14. Avatar Magnolia Neighborhoo says:

    Celebrated my neighbor's 100th birthday at Lim's Cafe. Her choice. She knew the menu by heart, and told stories of meals enjoyed there with friends years ago, who are no longer alive. The staff was cordial, respectful and kind. The food was hot, tasty & served promptly. A good time! And yes, love the sign outside! Thank you Lim ladies for a great memory!

  15. Avatar pmarshall says:

    It has been many years since we ate at Lim's. I think it was just about the only Chinese restaurant in town, so couldn;t compare. The restaurant at the airport is pretty good. My doctor always says, don't eat chinese. I guess it is the salt, but, who knows, maybe there are ther reasons.

  16. Avatar KarenC says:

    We've lived in Redding for 49 years, and finally decided last year to go to Lim's. I had a fabulous beef and bell pepper combo over rice. It was awesome! I wanted to go back, and soon, so we did and I ordered the same thing….awful! How could this be? Service is good. place appears clean, but the cook must be tired. I have a policy about restaurants. I go there once and order something very popular, that I love. If it is bad, I never go there again.

    I usually know if a restaurant will make it, and am usually right. Lim's does have an attraction, but their staying power is a mystery to me.

  17. Avatar Scott Lyon says:

    Lim's was the first place my family stopped for dinner in Rdg when we drove hear from AK in 1980. 3 generations of us live here now and we still gather at Lim's w/ friends and family on a regular basis. Everett used to pick up our oldest(when a wee tike) and give him the grand tour of the place so that my wife and I could enjoy some quiet time at dinner. The kids and I are there nearly every weekend for a breakfast out and our youngest chooses Lim's for birthday dinners.

    Retro? 'Retro' is a fashion design like Logan's and Applebee's and Outback and Famous Dave's and every restaurant chain store in Rdg that has an identical mate in nearly every other town in America.

    Not 'retro.' It's Lim's. It's tradition and history and family and friends and memories. It's been a stopping place for people of all walks since before I-5 and Dana Drive — ever notice the picture of Danny Kay and his troop on the wall?

    The staff and clientele are nice people who enjoy being regulars and, yes, many of us have the menu pretty much memorized. It's not a bad thing.

  18. Avatar Barb says:

    OK. I normally don't post negative feedback to the almighty Femme, buttttt….

    I was born here. When I CRAVE chinese food, I CRAVE Lims. A number one please, pan fried noodles, extra crispy. Oh and yes please to the hot tea.

    Now, when I want fresh modern chinese, I go to Peter Chu's. But when I want old school taste that satisfies my toes, I go to Lims. Just sayin. Lims may not be for the FOODIES in the crowd, but for the locals who grew up with that flavor, its a piece of heaven.

    Recently, the counterpart to Lims, Far East Cafe, Sold to new owners and I was horribly sad. My regular haunt, and food very similar to Lims. Its the kind of restaurants that will make y0ur favorite dish no matter what the time is, or when they are closing. As a matter of fact, I was so upset about missing out on my favorite Far East, the owner promised if I visit her new restaurant in Eureka, she will make me whatever I want even though its NOT a Chinese restaurant. LOL. But I digress.

    My point is this; Some places are sacrosanct. Lims is one of em. Not only are they consistent, they are a taste of home for alot of us!

  19. Avatar All Knowing says:

    Lims is a historical site in Redding. My very first memories of coming into town to hang out, as a teen ager, always included Lims late at night before we drove home. I believe they used to be open all night. I miss the little juke box selectors on every table that would play our favorite music without having to walk over to the main unit. The food is and was what I would call fill you up food. Bland to medium nothing much spicer than the condiments you put on it, but you can always bet it's going to be that way consistantly like a old memory that never changes. We ate many meals there over the years, as other restaurants came and went, and I'm sure there will be another time as well.

  20. Avatar Lisa says:

    one try was enough for me. i understand that loads of people love this place – but there is better chinese food in redding – not alot for sure. but it is nice to see a resturant stay in business for so long in redding – so many restaurants open then close in a year.