Golden Horseshoe at Cook St. Paul (St. Paul, MN)

Though you wouldn’t know it from the silence of the “major” Twin Cities food critics and reviewers*, there is currently a very interesting set of Sichuan meals to be had in St. Paul, at Golden Horseshoe, a “residency” at Cook St. Paul (on Payne Avenue in East St. Paul) that will be running through early September. Cook St. Paul is an interesting concept—a diner most of the time, and host to various pop-ups at other times. As far as I know, Golden Horseshoe is the first extended engagement they’ve hosted. It got going a week or two ago with a small number of dishes available at dinner (Thursdays through Sundays, starting at 5 pm as long as the residency goes on). Each week a couple of new dishes join the menu. The plan is for there to be almost 20 dishes on the menu by the time the residency comes to an end. Is this something worth going to given that we have the excellent Grand Szechuan available to us every day of the year, to say nothing of creditable Sichuan food at Szechuan Spice and Tea House? Yes, I’d say it is.

The menu is apparently designed by a DC chef named Gen Lee* and is executed by another chef, DaiCan Tang, originally from Chongqing though most recently from New York. I’m not sure what the goal of the residency is—to introduce Twin Citizens to Sichuan cooking not otherwise available in the area? To pave the way for the opening of a new full-time Sichuan restaurant helmed by Chef Tang? The latter would certainly be highly welcome, especially if the restaurant were to be located in St. Paul. As for the former, I wouldn’t say that there are very many revelations on the current short menu for those who eat at Grand Szechuan regularly. That’s not to say that everything Golden Horseshoe currently has on their menu is already available locally.

One of our favourite dishes at our dinner there last Friday was one we’ve not had before locally: dry fried eggplant. Thick sticks of long eggplant are fried to a perfect crisp on the outside and a melting interior and tossed with crushed red pepper and Sichuan peppercorn. That’s a massive appetizer, we said when it was set down in front of us, and then a few minutes later it was all gone. By contrast the cilantro fish roll—one of the other three appetizers on the menu last week—was merely good; a small bite that didn’t make much of an impression (though it did leave more room in our bellies for dry fried eggplant). Even though it was just the two of us (marking our 16th wedding anniversary—a fact we were reminded of that morning by my visiting parents), we ordered four main dishes to follow. And yes, to keep things simple for the kitchen, they take the appetizer orders first and the mains only after the appetizers have come out. Everything comes out very quickly, so it’s not a big deal.

What did we get? The crispy pork belly, the mapo tofu, the cumin lamb chops, and the Sichuan dry pot with shrimp and chicken. The pork belly was the least interesting of the lot—tasty but not particularly interesting. The mapo tofu, on the other hand, was hands down the best we’ve had in the Twin Cities—including during the original heyday of Little Szechuan. Where Grand Szechuan’s (also good) version is bright and hot, Golden Horseshoe’s brings far more of the fermented black bean depth and funk. The cumin lamb chops (expensive at $36 but you get four lamb chops) were very tasty and the chops were cooked perfectly but I prefer Grand Szechuan’s cumin lamb preparations. The dry pot (think dry stir-fry) was very good too.

For pictures of the food and of the Cook St. Paul space, please launch the slideshow below. For thoughts on price, value etc. please scroll down.

Cook St. Paul has a cocktail menu but nothing on it particularly grabbed my fancy; I ended up getting a beer. The missus was driving and with her low alcohol tolerance stuck to tea (which is also complimentary). All of the above came to almost exactly $120 with tax and tip. That’s a lot for two people but please keep in mind that we ordered enough for four—indeed the leftovers made a heavy dinner for two the next day. So $30 with tax and tip. And it would be a lot cheaper if you didn’t get the lamb chops. Either way, very good value for what it is.

If I have any mild reservations/criticisms it would be these: 1) they seem to be holding back on the heat and Sichuan peppercorns somewhat—even though we asked for things to be hot, nothing was particularly hot; 2) the menu so far is a little too safe. The former issue may be a concession to local palates (though keep in mind that Grand Szechuan, Szechuan Spice and the better Thai places are quite unrestrained when we ask them to be); the latter may possibly be addressed as new dishes join the menu. We’ll be back for sure, at least a couple more times before it comes to an end—though we’re going to be hampered by being away at the North Shore next week and on the East Coast for a good chunk of August—and I’m hoping we might see some dishes along the lines of what’s available at Chengdu Taste or Sichuan Impression in the San Gabriel Valley. But even if not, I expect we’ll eat very well.

If you’ve not been yet, I urge you to go. The local food media may not be trumpeting this—compare with the attention given to Andrew Zimmern’s folly—but it’s a big deal for the local Chinese food scene. We were there at 6 pm on a Friday and there were tables going begging when we arrived and when we left. Yes, it’s a small place but there were never more than four tables occupied. That’s a shame and it would be even more of a shame if a perceived lack of local interest kept a possible full-time restaurant from happening at the end of this residency. So go, and tell your friends!

*Big time thanks to Jim Grinsfelder for drawing my attention to Golden Horseshoe elsewhere on the blog.

**Twin Cities food people may remember Gen Lee from the coverage of the Lucky Cricket debacle last year.

13 thoughts on “Golden Horseshoe at Cook St. Paul (St. Paul, MN)

  1. Mao, check out Magic Noodles at Hamline and University in St. Paul.

    It’s not as good as Xi’an Taste in London (across the road from the home stadium of FC Arsenal). But it’s pretty good, and possibly the only place we can get those lamb sandwiches and hand-pulled noodles.

    They did good stuff with pickled veggies.

    P.S. if you ever want to get together for a lunch or dinner in the metro, e-mail me.


  2. Thanks for the writeup. Curious to hear your thoughts on the dan dan noodles if you try them on a future visit, I thought those were best I’ve had in the Cities.

    I agree the heat was a bit restrained, though to be fair I didn’t ask for it one way or another. And yes, hopefully the menu gets a little more adventurous as they progress. I didn’t get a clear understanding of how the “residency” works, something about Chef Tang flying in every couple weeks to check up on things and build new dishes into the menu. So does this mean Cook staff are doing the day to day cooking? If so this may explain the safe menu – let’s master some simple things first. Plus I’m sure the “bland Minnesota palate” things comes into play – if you only have 4 entrees you’ll want at least a couple familiar things (or so the theory goes).

    Also I’m a bit disconcerted about the lack of diners. I ate on Saturday evening around 6 and only one other table was occupied. It got busier but never full. I’ve driven by the place during a couple of their popups and there were lines out the door. For that matter there is always a wait for Cook in prime weekend brunch hours. I don’t get it.

    Selfishly this all makes for a pleasant dining experience – come as you are, pick any table you like, the service is friendly and attentive, Chef Wu will even stop by and b.s. Plus it’s a very high quality meal at a very reasonable price. It’s pretty much all I could ask for in a restaurant – with the added bonus that it’s about 3 miles from my house. So I’m super excited about this weird ephemeral place and can’t wait to return in a few weeks and see what’s new on the menu.


    • Our goal is to eat the entire menu before we’re done. I’m hoping to make it there at least once more in July, once in early August before we leave for DC/NYC and once at the end of August when we’re back. Of course, this will require that this residency plays out like planned. I worry that if business remains slow they might pull the plug.

      Re dan dan noodles, I’ve found there to be a lot of variation in how different places do it—makes sense for what is street food. And yes, I am positive we will give their version a try on an upcoming visit.


          • Though Thip Khao appears to be a simple straight shot on the metro…The question is whether the chicken/pork skewers on their menu are in a spicy marinade or not. If not, the boys will be able to eat that very happily. But if those are spicy too I don’t know what else is on the menu that they could be reliably counted on to eat. Perhaps I’ll give the restaurant a call at some point.


          • Jose Andres’ restaurant Jaleo might be fun with your kids. At least one table is a low foosball table with a big glass plate over the playing area. Superb Spanish food and wine is the other attractive feature.

            The super-high end vegan restaurant from Philly has an outpost in DC which is also very good.

            We ubered easily to the in-town stuff. Uber won’t get you Rockville for a reasonable price.


          • That was recommended on a DC food forum as well—not sure if the menu has any sure-fire things they’ll eat (they eat lots of things that most Minnesotan kids their ages don’t, but lots of things you’d expect kids their ages to eat they turn their noses up at).


  3. Union Kitchen was a lengthy affiliation before this (now at Sociable Cider) The residency was born out of the controversy over Zimmern’s comments – which the Wu’s were very vocal about. I suspect, as it did with their Union Kitchen partnership, tables will get harder to come by.


    • Thanks.

      I have to say that while I welcome the Golden Horseshoe and whatever permanent restaurant that may come out of it, nothing new was needed to counter Zimmern’s self-serving folly. The Twin Cities metro already had a good number of hardcore Sichuan restaurants serving all those kinds of things (and far, far more) that Zimmern claimed he would be introducing to the Midwest at Lucky Cricket. Indeed, Grand Szechuan’s menu is way more hardcore than what’s showed up so far at Golden Horseshoe, and they’ve been around for almost 10 years now. In fact, I’ve eaten things at Grand Szechuan (the spicy scrambled pork brains, for example) that I’ve never seen at hardcore Sichuan places in the San Gabriel Valley (in the LA metro).


  4. My favourite thing learned in reading what I could find on Golden Horseshoe before posting this review is in that link at the bottom: that Andrew Zimmern put a dish called “Peter Chang’s Dry Fried Eggplant” on the Lucky Cricket menu without asking for permission/mentioning it to Chang. And when called on it, he said that it was a tribute and they didn’t need to ask for permission because they don’t make it the same way that Chang’s apparently signature dish is made… So maybe the better name would be “Not Peter Chang’s Dry Fried Eggplant”?

    Someone who has eaten at Lucky Cricket should tell us how their dry fried eggplant compares to Golden Horseshoe’s excellent version which is presumably made exactly to Lee and Chang’s specifications.


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