For me, the greatness of a city is measured not by infrastructure or employment levels, but by the quality of their hood Chinese food establishments. Luckily for Santa Fe, Chopstix Oriental Food To Go (238 N Guadalupe St., 820-2126) calls the place home.
Looking to make a good impression, I consider inviting my illustrious intern Robert—who spent nine months in China—and ask him about the extent of his Mandarin. "I can say stuff like 'I like your pants' or 'Wow, that cat is really fat!'" he answers, so I reconsider.
Located in a former filling station, Chopstix has a bevy of signs—both neon and not—on its windows to advertise its wonders: Chinese! Korean! Japanese! Lowest fat! No MSG!
Entranced, I walk in.
The fantastical signage continues inside, with messages like "Eat healthy food here for your life" emblazoned on the menu board.
Instantly, I'm greeted by co-proprietor Mimi Hyon. "Hi! How are you? Welcome!" she says effusively. She's wearing some sharp trousers. I immediately regret not having Robert in tow.
But as it turns out, Mimi and her husband Young are South Korean. They moved to Santa Fe eight and a half years ago, after running a similarly successful operation in Irvine, Ca.
"At that time, we were number one," she reminisces. "OK…I'm telling you, God lead us here," she continues.
A sticker that reads "Jesus saved my life" rests by the kitchen entrance and underscores the sentiment. It's an homage to Mr. Hyon's previous life as a pastor.
Later, I find out that they're quite the badass couple, as both of them belonged to a mission that at one time smuggled bibles into China.
"That was a long time ago," Mr. Hyon says. "Now the Chinese government allow[s] it."
The couple's menu—chock-full of specialty items like bibimbap ($6.99), tofu chop suey ($4.99 for a pint) and "Hawaiian roast" chicken ($6.65)—is awe-inducing.
Overwhelmed, I settle for a combo ($4.99-$7.99), which comes with your choice of chow mein or fried rice on the side. Naturally, I ask for half and half. Feeling adventurous, I choose the spicy orange chicken and the Mongolian beef as my entrees.
Fried dumpling on the side? Why not.
"Want to make it two?" Mimi suggests. I nod a hell yes.
"I give sample to you," she says, slopping some sesame chicken to the pile and covering it with a jellied ladleful of "hot n spicy" soup for good measure.
Almost skipping toward a chair, I let the adventure begin.
I sit next to a space heater and Mimi's geranium collection. I'm also right by the bathroom, wherein the liquid soap (or what appears to be Suavitel fabric softener) is dispensed from repurposed Sriracha bottles, gangster style.
But back to the chow. The rice is fluffy and complemented perfectly in its lightness by tiny carrot bits, peas and all the other comfort fare you'd find in a can of Veg-All. The noodles? They are hearty and thick, weighing down my fork within an inch of its plastic existence.
The beef is chewy, wondrous and peppered to perfection. As for the spicy orange chicken, it lives up to its fiery name, and I devour each gummy-bear-like morsel with gusto.
Much as burping is considered a polite way of expressing satisfaction in some Eastern cultures, my family has its own gauge—which we refer to as "The Limón Curse." It's reflected by the number of stains on your clothes after a good meal, and is both the reason we carry extra shirts in our cars and why drycleaners up and down the Pacific Coast smile when they see us come in.
"How about that? Did you enjoy?" Mrs. Hyon asks as I consider licking the Styrofoam container.
My shirt is smeared and I reek of fabric softener. What's not to enjoy?
At a Glance
Serving: Chinese, Japanese and Korean comfort food
Menu: orange chicken, house-brewed kimchi and everything in between
Best bet: the combos