Beef Cantonese Chow Mein
- 2-3 cups pan fried or Cantonese noodles
- vegetable Oil to coat pan
- 1.5 cups sliced beef
- 2 cups beef broth
- ¼-½ cup broccoli
- 1/8 cup water chestnuts
- 1/8 cup bamboo shoots
- 1.5-2 cups celery
- ¼ cup pea pods
- 1 cup bean sprouts
- ¼ teaspoon garlic
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- ¾ teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 cup corn starch + water mixture (Note! Dissolve and whisk cornstarch into warm water and set aside)
- dash of soy sauce
- dash/drop of sesame oil (Not too much!)
- Blanch noodles in hot water, cooking them for about 30 seconds.
- Heat up a pan or cast iron pan on stovetop on high (around 400 degrees). Add the cooked noodles and cook for 30-45 seconds and then flip them. Shut off the heat on the burner and keep moving the noodles so they do not burn, cooking around 175 degrees. The noodles will become crisp. Put pan aside.
- Heat up a wok on high. Add oil to coat pan. Once it’s heated, add sliced beef and stir fry for about 20 seconds, continuously flipping the beef.
- Add garlic and broth.
- Add broccoli, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and celery. Bring broth to a boil.
- Once it’s boiling, add bean sprouts and peapods. The boil may stop for a moment.
- Add sugar, salt, and MSG into ladle.
- Once the mixture is boiling again, add the ladle of ingredients. Add a dash of soy sauce to wok.
- Whisk cornstarch mixture again to move the cornstarch from the bottom of bowl. Once it’s mixed again and has a glue-like consistency, add to wok.
- Mix the broth while it boils. It will turn into a gravy.
- Once the gravy looks ready, turn heat off burner.
- Add noodles to plate. Ladle meat and veggie mixture on top of noodles.
- Enjoy your Beef Cantonese Chow Mein!
- You can substitute the pan fried noodles with rice or chow mein noodles.
- You can also substitute sliced beef with chicken or shrimp, roast pork or more vegetables.
The Cozy Inn restaurant is an institution in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Not only is it popular among locals, but it’s historic. The business opened in November 1922 and is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin. It’s also the second oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the United States, meaning it has been in the same location since day one. (Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana holds the title, opening in 1909). It lives up to its name, too, as customers pack into cozy, round booths throughout the second-story restaurant.
The Cozy Inn has had a series of owners. Today, Tom and Amanda Fong run the restaurant. WPR’s Angela Major caught up with Tom to talk about the history of The Cozy Inn and an historic dish they serve: Beef Cantonese Chow Mein.
(The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity)
Angela Major: Can you tell me about the history of The Cozy Inn?
Tom Fong: This restaurant came to be back in 1922. It started with two brothers and then it went to one of their sons. Then, it went to another son and then a brother. So, it was like three generations of the Wong family. I personally knew David and Howard Wong, they were brothers, but their grandfather started the business.
AM: How did your family get involved?
TF: My mom, Marie Shum, was a head chef in Milwaukee at a variety of restaurants. She was most notably famous for being the head chef at Toy’s Restaurant. Anyone that knows history of Chinese restaurants, especially in Milwaukee, they would know that name. She was also a head chef at the Golden Dragon and Golden Palace.
When this restaurant was available … my mom personally knew the owners and they said they were selling the business. So, my mom decided to move from Milwaukee to Janesville in 1974. She and my stepfather became the chefs. I was only 14 and my brother was 16. Because of the language barrier, my brother and I pretty much ran the business. I’ve been here since.
AM: What changes have you seen over the years?
TF: We’ve experienced a lot of things. Economically there have been ups and downs and recessions. There have been layoffs at the local GM plants here.
When the Janesville GM plant closed in 2008 — I used to work there myself — (many of) my coworkers from General Motors transferred to other General Motors plants. I didn’t because I still had this business. But, they took off to Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, everywhere. Some went to Florida, some retired. When they see me or they come back to visit, they all say the same thing: they can’t find a Chinese restaurant with the same kind of food. It’s all different to them. They say it’s not as good.
We have always had the great connection and support from the community.
I can remember seeing different generations coming up here. There’s this one girl, she was like 7 or 8 when her parents brought her here. Now, she’s a grandmother. So she’s bringing her kids and her grandkids. We’re looking at five generations.
AM: What keeps people coming back?
TF: Our food. They grew up on it, so it’s pretty nostalgic to them.
I have a book right here. When we celebrated our 100 year anniversary, customers filled out a form about what they remember and how this (restaurant) had an impact on their life.
AM: How do you view your food in the wider Wisconsin cuisine culture?
TF: This is a different ethnic food — Cantonese dishes. This is sort of a lost cuisine now. It’s evolving because people that came from China started to change the food a little bit.
A lot of the original Cantonese people from southern China — like my parents — they still cook some of this original stuff. But, a lot of southern Chinese people are getting out of the restaurant business.
Originally, the first immigrants that came to America were southern Chinese people from Canton, China, now (known as) Guangzhou. That was way back in the late 1800s to the early 1930s and 40s. They’re all established pretty much. Usually the original families that came here, they always try to make their kids’ lives better. So, they worked in Chinese restaurants or laundromats. They tried to save their money just so they can provide education for their kids. So now, these kids don’t want to go into the Chinese restaurant business. They become doctors and lawyers and accountants or whatever they want to be.
But then, back in the 1990s to the 2000s, there was an influx of northern Chinese people who migrated here. They became the Chinese restaurant owners. They’re changing the dishes a little bit. That’s the reason why if you go to these other Chinese restaurants, they’re just a little different.
AM: Can you elaborate on that?
TF: So usually with Chinese dishes, there’s salt, sugars, monosodium, garlic, ginger and things like that. Some dishes use plum sauce. But now with the new dishes, they put more plum sauce in than anything and it has a has a real sweet flavor.
Ours … it’s more like a neutral, salty, tangy taste. It’s a more authentic Cantonese dish.
AM: Do customers seem to have a favorite dish?
TF: So things have started changing, like generation-wise.
If I’m in the kitchen cooking or even taking orders, I can tell. Older generations still tend to go for the chop suey and chow mein stuff. Then, people in their 30s, 40s go for the spicier dishes — like Hunan and Sichuan style. Now, you get the real young people. They go for the sweet stuff, like the orange chicken and the sesame chicken, sweet and sour things.
AM: What’s a dish that’s important to The Cozy Inn’s history?
TF: This noodle dish called Beef Cantonese Chow Mein. It’s Cantonese because we have this noodle that a lot of other restaurants don’t serve. They only serve lo mein, a spaghetti-type noodle that they mix with their dish. This is actually a Cantonese noodle that is very popular here, it’s called a pan fried noodle. This is served underneath (the sauce), so it’s actually hot and crispy underneath.
The trick of making that dish — you take that noodle and you had to soak it in hot, hot water. Then you have to get your wok to be really hot. Then, you have to turn it down. Then, you have to then throw it in the wok and you have to really keep a really, really tight eye on it. If you don’t, you’ll burn it really quickly. Then, you have to flip it, turn (the heat) down and moderate your temperature so you can make sure it’s cooking, but yet it stays crispy. That’s the noodle portion.
Then then when you cook the rest of the dish, you stir fry the meant, broccoli and other vegetables, except for the bean sprouts. You always do that last one. You do not want to cook the sprouts and pea pods right away, otherwise they get mushy and soft. That’s at the very end. But the rest of it, you just add it in, you stir fry. Put in your your other ingredients like salt, a little bit of soy sauce and garlic. Wait until it becomes too hot and boils. It becomes a gravy mixture and then put your other bean sprouts and your pea pods and so forth. Time it correctly. It has to be crispy. You don’t want your vegetables mushy. Cooked but crisp.
That’s really one of the original Cantonese dishes.