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A Table for Two: Chopsticks Inn keeps the flavor of vintage Duluth alive

By Tom Wilkowske for the Duluth News Tribune When Peggy Cooke wants a taste of old-school Duluth, she heads to Huie's Chopsticks Inn for Joe Huie's Shrimp. Huie's Chopsticks Inn, on Fourth Street in Duluth's Central Hillside, is the last restaura...

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By Tom Wilkowske for the Duluth News Tribune

When Peggy Cooke wants a taste of old-school Duluth, she heads to Huie's Chopsticks Inn for Joe Huie's Shrimp.

Huie's Chopsticks Inn, on Fourth Street in Duluth's Central Hillside, is the last restaurant with a family tie to Joe Huie's Cafe, a classic Chinese-American restaurant on Lake Avenue that fed Duluth diners from 1951 until 1973. Huie's son, Wing Ying Huie, later opened the Chinese Lantern, which became a landmark in its own right before a fire destroyed that business in 1994.

PEGGY'S PREFERENCE

Cooke remembers the date: Jan. 16, the day before she was to go to the Chinese Lantern for her sister's birthday. Her husband Doug, a Duluth firefighter, called her from work, informing her of the news. "He said 'You can't go out to dinner tomorrow.' I said why? And he said 'Because the restaurant burned down.' "

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Soon after the fire, Ping Huie, Joe Huie's nephew, and his wife, Lee, opened Chopsticks Inn, keeping alive a handful of recipes from the old days, including the shrimp.

"It used to be on the menu only on weekends, but now it's always there," Cooke said as we met at the restaurant for dinner on Saturday. We each ordered the shrimp entree, with Egg Foo Yong instead of the standard French fries, and added a Wor Wonton Soup for Two.

Our soup arrived first. The large tureen held humongous floating wontons, several large shrimp, a few peapods and a smattering of other vegetables. The entrees were out mere minutes later.

Cooke gave me her verdict: "They [the shrimp] aren't as big as the Chinese Lantern days, but they're nice and juicy. And the batter is light. That's what I like about it. It's not so hard that it feels like you're crunching on croutons."

TOM'S TAKE

Despite Joe Huie's origins in China's Guangdong province, the shrimp dish bearing his name doesn't claim to be Chinese. It's on the carryout menu under American Cuisine, below the hamburger and -- well, Egg Foo Yong sandwich. Served on a platter with tartar sauce, the eight or nine shrimp, trimmed of tail and shell, formed rings that almost reminded me of jumbo-sized calamari, only way more tender. Cooke theorized that the shrimp are prepared in a butterfly cut and curl up when deep fried.

The batter is an unusual mix of a light inner batter layer, coated with an almost cornflake-like outer crunchy layer that hung on the shrimp almost like loose scales on a fish. That doesn't sound very appetizing, but it was -- an interesting texture and taste combination.

The Egg Foo Yong was pretty standard, as was the wonton soup, noteworthy for the jumbo wontons and the mild but full-flavored, not-too-salty stock.

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If the shrimp sounds interesting, give Huie's Chopsticks Inn a try, if for no other reason than to sample some Duluth history.

ABOUT THE DISH AND RESTAURANT

A language barrier prevented me from getting precise details about how Joe Huie's Shrimp is made. The restaurant is co-owned by Ping and Lee Huie; Ping, the cook and Joe Huie's nephew, doesn't speak English, says Wendy Magnuson, who has been a server at the restaurant since it opened in 1994.

"I don't know the ingredients in the batter. They make it when it's ordered; they hand dip it and they fry it. They don't make it ahead of time," she said. "It's real light and flaky, almost like a cornflake batter, but I don't think it's cornflakes." Magnuson said there's a smaller lunch order of the Joe Huie's Shrimp for those who want to try a smaller portion first.

Everything in the restaurant is made from scratch, including chicken stock. All dishes can be ordered without MSG, with the exception of the home-style gravy and the egg rolls, which are made up in larger batches, Magnuson said.

Specialties carried over from the Chinese Lantern/Joe Huie's days include Fong Wong Chicken ($9.95), a chicken breast wrapped around a piece of ham, breaded and deep fried and served on a bed of Chinese vegetables, and shrimp toast, an appetizer of diced shrimp between bread slices that are pressed together and deep fried.

The guest

Name: Peggy Cooke

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Age: 58

Hometown: Duluth

Occupation: Retired hairdresser

Dish nominated: Joe Huie's Shrimp ($10.95 with French fries, $11.95 with Egg Foo Yong)

Quote: "Their great fantastic fried shrimp is hand-dipped, making it delicate and fresh-tasting. It's reminiscent of the Chinese Lantern."

The restaurant

Huie's Chopsticks Inn, 505 E. Fourth St., Duluth

Phone: 727-0820, 727-8515

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 2-10 p.m. Saturday; and 4-9 p.m. Sunday

Menu style: Chinese/American

Clientele: Employees of nearby hospitals and business-people for lunch; regulars for dinner and carryout business, head server Wendy Magnuson says

Entree price range: $4.55 (pint of Chicken Fried Rice) to $17.95 (Lung Har Gai Kew and Imperial Delight)

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar service available from adjacent Twins Bar

Reservations: Accepted

Who runs the kitchen: Co-owner Ping Huie

A Table for Two invites readers to nominate their favorite menu items from area restaurants. Our food reviewer selects the best reader nominations and then arranges A Table For Two to sample the item together and compare impressions. To nominate your favorite menu item, send an e-mail to atablefortwo@duluthnews.com .

Tom Wilkowske is a food reviewer for the Wave. Reach him at atablefortwo@duluthnews.com .

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