There’s a reason why Lucky China, a modest little Chinese restaurant on the side of a busy road in West St. Paul, is destination dining for so many Korean-Americans in Minnesota. It’s not for the Korean soap operas playing on the wall-mount television. It’s not for the chop suey or sweet and sour dishes. The owners, who are Chinese-Korean-Americans ( a lot of hyphens), expertly turn out noodle dishes that are created specifically to cater to Korean tastes. As you enter the restaurant, your nationality will be quickly assessed, as at a border crossing. If you’re not Korean, politely decline the traditional Chinese menu and request the Korean menu, which you might otherwise not even learn of. This well-worn laminated sheet will offer two particularly interesting dishes: Cha Jang Mein and Cham Pong. These dishes are the ubiquitous and much-loved fast food of Korea, prepared exclusively by the Chinese ethnic minority. For all the bowls of cha jang mein I ate as a child I never once received an action figure. But those were, for me at least, happy meals nonetheless.
Cha Jang Mein is a generous bowl of chewy homemade noodles coated in a rich black bean sauce with small chunks of pork, diced potatoes, and onions, all sauteed in glorious pork fat and topped off with finely julienned slices of cucumber. My corn-fed Minnesotan husband describes it as Asian Carbonara. Lucky China’s version ($7.50) is, in fact, exemplary. Although the dark, glistening sauce may intimidate the uninitiated, this dish will hook you from the first slurp. I’ve been known to not come up for air once I tuck in and the chopsticks hit the noodles.
As good as the Cha Jang Mein is, every visit to Lucky China still presents a dilemma: Cha Jang Mein or Cham Pong? The Cham Pong ($8), which the menu describes only as “Homemade noodles with seafood,” is oh-so-much more. It’s an outsized bowl of crimson red soup: A mass of thick, chewy noodles swimming in a briny, spicy broth and teeming with mussels, squid, and sliced vegetables. Thankfully, Korean etiquette permits — if not encourages — one to lift the bowl off the table to drink the last of the broth, so don’t be shy! A word to the wise, though: Do not attempt to wear white when eating Cham Pong or Cha Jang Mein.
The noodle dishes are the stars at Lucky China, but it’s well worth starting your meal with an order of Gan Poung Chicken, Beef, or Prawns ($12 to $20). Gan Poung is the Chinese-Korean variant of Kung Pao, though spicier and less salty than its Chinese-American cousin. Crisply battered, hot pieces of meat are tossed in a spicy, sweet, and vinegary sauce and topped off with shreds of potent peppers. In Korea, these bold dishes are traditionally served as accompaniments to alcoholic beverages (such as soju, Korea’s vodka-like libation) before the main meal, so they are not typically served with rice. You may, however, find a bowl of rice a good balance to temper the heat from the hot peppers.
In Korea, Cha Jang Mein is a cheap and quick meal and occupies the place in Korean culture that pizza does in the West — the delivery food of choice. During busy lunch hours in Seoul, tens of thousands of bowls of Cha Jang Mein are delivered via fleets of mopeds. The drivers often navigate with one hand, using the other to balance large metal boxes in the other. The design and function of these boxes are unique: safely encasing several stacking bowls of steaming hot noodles. These covered plastic bowls are dropped off at the doorsteps of so many apartments in Seoul’s high-rise jungle. After their cargo is consumed the empty bowls are again left at the apartment doorstep, not unlike the aftermath of room service in a hotel, to be picked up during the deliveryman’s next round. The only disposable item: chopsticks. Two years ago, when I was visiting Korea with my mother, my aunt took a break from cooking for us and ordered in. I was so excited to have “authentic” Cha Jang Mein in Korea! Alas, the delivered Cha Jang Mein had watery sauce and the noodles were limp and soggy. And mom proudly told her sister-in-law, “I guess you’ll have to come to Minnesota to have a good bowl of Cha Jang Mein.”
So here, halfway around the world from Seoul, is a family of Chinese-Korean-Americans, serving up absolutely authentic Chinese-Korean dishes. It’s well worth the traffic on I-94 and much cheaper than a flight to Seoul.
BEST BETS: Cha Jang Mein and Champ Pong noodle dishes, Gan Poung dishes with spicy, sweet and sour sauce.
1375 S Robert St
West St. Paul, MN 55118
Closed on Sundays
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited /Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $7-20