Tim Woodward

Closure of Twin Dragon restaurant, a Boise icon, spawns memories

Twin Dragon, July 30, 2013
Twin Dragon, July 30, 2013 Statesman file

Some of my earliest memories of the Twin Dragon restaurant, a Boise institution soon to be a memory, are of going there as a teenager in a rock group. That’s how long it’s been a Boise icon.

We went there after the dances we played, which ended at midnight. Boise was much smaller then; there weren’t many places that stayed open that late. Milo’s Torch Cafe and the Twin Dragon, 2200 W. Fairview Ave., were night-owl magnets in that part of town.

Our orders invariably included Chinese pork and seeds, served with the fiery Chinese mustard for which such establishments are famous, or, in my case, infamous. No meal at the Twin Dragon was complete without my bandmates and our girlfriends egging me on to slather a slice of pork with way too much of the stuff. I sneezed; my eyes watered. Steam was said to have risen from the top of my head.

If a buyer isn’t found, the Twin Dragon will close in March. Owner James Lam, who has kept it going for 32 years, is hanging up his apron.

“I’m getting older now, and I need to take it easy,” he told me. “I want to relax and spend some time with my family instead of working every day.”

Thirty-two years is a long time in the restaurant business, but the Twin Dragon has been around even longer than that. Its family tree dates to the old Louie’s Golden Dragon, a Boise institution at the corner of Eighth and Grove streets. It closed in 1964. Larry Louie, whose father started the Golden Star Restaurant on Orchard Avenue, said that one of the Golden Dragon’s four partners returned to China, another started the Golden Star and the other two started the Twin Dragon — each taking half of the Golden Dragon name. Both opened in 1965.

The Golden Dragon was my parents’ favorite Chinese restaurant. Nothing if not consistent, I invariably ordered pork and seeds with mouth-scorching mustard even then. When my mother wanted to get me out of the way on days when she invited friends over to play bridge, she’d bribe me with Golden Dragon pork and seeds and a new, one-dollar Hardy Boys book. That bought her a few hours of quiet time while I curled up in my room with the Hardys and Louie’s takeout. Nirvana.

Louie’s was the scene of a brief but unforgettable conversation with my father during my junior high years. For reasons now forgotten, my mother and sister weren’t there; it was just the two of us. He used the occasion to ask, as a father will, what I wanted to do with my life. I’d progressed from the Hardy Boys to John Steinbeck by then and answered without hesitation.

“I want to be a writer.”

His response was equally swift.

“You don’t want to do that, son. You need to do something practical. There are writers starving in the streets.”

I struggled with that dichotomy — the wide-eyed desire to be the next Steinbeck versus something that would pay the bills — well into college before settling on journalism as a kind of compromise. I sometimes wonder how things would have been different if Dad had encouraged my impractical dream.

It was a sad day when the Golden Dragon closed, but the Twin Dragon and Golden Star ably carried on the tradition. Both look and act the way local Chinese restaurants should. The Twin Dragon isn’t fancy — the decor consists of a few Chinese paintings and well-worn booths and tables — but the food is good, the menu extensive, the prices reasonable. You get hot tea and hot mustard without having to ask for them. It has a fiercely loyal clientele.

“Our customers feel like they’re getting something special that they don’t get anywhere else,” Lam said. “It’s not like they won’t get Chinese food when we close, but some of the dishes won’t be the same as we make them here.”

Something unique in my experience happened at the Twin Dragon shortly before my college graduation. You know how the fortunes in Chinese fortune cookies virtually never come true? My folks and I were at the Twin Dragon one night when one did. My wife and I had signed up for a ridiculously cheap flight to Europe, sponsored by our universities, and my parents were on the wire about whether to join us. Mom wanted to go, but Dad was resisting.

His eyes widened as he read the words printed on the strip of paper: “You will soon leave on a long trip.”

That did it. He could argue with Mom, but there was no arguing with a fortune like that.

Another memorable, though less positive, incident happened to us years later in the Twin Dragon parking lot. We’d had dinner and were walking to our car when another car sped around a corner in the parking lot and bumped one of our granddaughters. The driver panicked and took off. An off-duty cop who witnessed it joined me in pursuit. Happily, there were no serious injuries. The embarrassed driver was apprehended and was appropriately remorseful.

Lots of memories. For old times sake, I went to the Twin Dragon last week for a last lunch, slathered a slice of pork in hot mustard and enjoyed every bite of it. I sneezed; my eyes watered. Steam rose from the top of my head.

It seemed the least I could do.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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