In Louisiana, Love for a Chinese Restaurant and Its Magnetic Owner

For years, Lucky Palace has drawn fans for its intriguing wine list. Now, they come to help their dear friend Kuan Lim in his time of need.

Kuan Lim started learning about wine in order to attract gamblers from the casinos that surround Lucky Palace, in Bossier City, La. He became a passionate expert, and is widely admired for his generosity and taste. Credit…Zerb Mellish for The New York Times

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By Brett Anderson

BOSSIER CITY, La. — In late August, Kuan Lim rolled his wheelchair up to a table set for 12 at Lucky Palace, the restaurant he operates inside a budget-priced motel in northwest Louisiana. Mr. Lim is battling cancer — he lost the bottom half of his right leg to the disease — and hadn’t been to the restaurant since a Chinese New Year celebration in January.

Lucky Palace is treasured in Bossier City and neighboring Shreveport for its menu of traditional and modern Chinese dishes, and for an adventurous wine list that has made it a cult favorite of oenophiles from New Orleans to California to France.

The restaurant’s fans are intensely loyal, particularly to Mr. Lim. The network of people who have cared for him during his illness — providing food, companionship and rides to medical appointments — is made up entirely of Lucky Palace employees and friends he has made through the restaurant.

Chris Jay, a food-and-wine writer in Shreveport and a Lucky Palace regular, said the pandemic has only strengthened the connection locals feel to the restaurant and its owner, whom intimates call simply “Lim.”

“When I see a friend, they always say, ‘How’s Lim?’” Mr. Jay said.

Mr. Lim, 55, was a warm and gregarious fixture at Lucky Palace from the day it opened, in 1997, until his osteosarcoma was diagnosed in 2016. This year, the impulse to show him physical affection has set up a potentially dangerous dynamic: In March, he began a new round of chemotherapy treatments, which compromise his immunity, just as the coronavirus started spreading through Louisiana.

All of this is why Mr. Lim’s emergence from isolation for a special, socially distanced dinner in August, a day before Hurricane Laura made landfall on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, was a closely guarded secret. Holly Lim, Lucky Palace’s manager, is not related to Mr. Lim, but she considers herself his protector. She hung a dark sheet near the entrance to keep his table, in the restaurant’s bar, hidden from customers.

“If they see him, they’ll want to kiss on him,” said Ms. Lim, 56. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I will.”

The friends invited to the dinner were all longtime regulars grateful for the opportunity to “share Lim” and “enjoy Lim.” Those were phrases bandied about as pre-dinner Champagne was poured from a magnum of Ruinart Brut Rosé, a gift from one of the guests, Dr. Philip Isherwood, a local physician.

“I love Champagne,” Mr. Lim said before the meal, “and also pinot noir and Bordeaux and all of it.”

Mr. Lim remains engaged with his restaurant’s wine service, from a distance. Customers text him for wine-pairing advice “all the time,” he said. In January, he wrote a mission statement for his staff, detailing the wines he wanted to emphasize with diners in 2020, including wine from the Jura region of France, German riesling and cru Beaujolais, all of which he believes offer good value and complement Lucky Palace’s food.

Joe Davis, the winemaker at Arcadian Winery in Santa Barbara County, Calif., said Mr. Lim’s unbridled enthusiasm is unique. “Lim is generous to a fault. He’ll open up anything for you to try,” he said. “He’s going to convince you one way or another to love wine as much as he does.”

Fine wine was not on Mr. Lim’s mind when he and his wife, Evelyn, opened Lucky Palace 23 years ago. They had met in the 1980s as students at Southern Illinois University. He was born in Batu Pahat, a town in Peninsular Malaysia; she is from Taiwan.

The couple were en route to San Antonio to look at a restaurant to buy when they stopped in Shreveport. They decided instead to open their Chinese-American restaurant in a Ramada Inn in Bossier City.

For the first few years, Mr. Lim woke at 4 a.m. to cook for the breakfast buffet. He was also the delivery driver. “I went to the gas station and bought a map, and just started driving,” he said. “The first delivery took me two hours, so I comped the meal.”

Lucky Palace’s evolution — it no longer serves breakfast or a buffet — began about a year after it opened, when an employee from one of the nearby casinos advised Mr. Lim to carry more expensive wines to sell to money-flush gamblers.

“I said, ‘What do you mean? I have a white zin and a few other things,’” Mr. Lim recalled. His favorite wine at the time, he said, was Blue Nun.

He embarked on a self-education in wine that coincided with a gradual transformation of Lucky Palace’s menu. The restaurant’s original head chef, James Cheng, was from Taipei, Taiwan, and he was assisted by Mr. Lim’s mother-in-law, Chun Ling Fei, and brother-in-law, Teck Ong. Gerardo Orta Marcial, who is from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, has headed the kitchen for the past 15 years.

David Bridges, a Shreveport chef, remembers being attracted to the restaurant in the early 2000s by word on the street. “I heard he had some dishes you didn’t see around here, like shark fin, which wasn’t so frowned upon back then, and jellyfish salad,” he said.

Mr. Bridges and Mr. Lim became close friends, and developed a routine: They would spend the week reading about new wines, and then pick bottles to taste during Sunday-night dinners at Lucky Palace. The dinners grew larger, drawing in local wine enthusiasts and creating others, as Mr. Lim fine-tuned his palate.

Mr. Bridges, 48, recalls a blind tasting of chardonnay with Mr. Lim. “Right off the bat he says, ‘I think this is from volcanic stone,’” Mr. Bridges said. “I do some research and realize he’s exactly right. At that point I was like, ‘Lim, you’ve surpassed me.’”

As Lucky Palace went more upscale, the motel that houses it went in the other direction. Rooms at what is now called the Bossier Inn & Suites go for $195 a week. The motel’s disheveled appearance — coupled with its location, hours away from the South’s established culinary capitals — is so discordant with Lucky Palace’s ambitions that the disconnect is part of the restaurant’s legend.

Brent Sloan, the owner and vintner of Rapport Wines, in Napa Valley, visited Lucky Palace for the first time last year. “My Uber driver was like, ‘I’m going to warn you, you’re going to think I’m taking you to a sketchy place,’” Mr. Sloan said.

He left as impressed with Mr. Lim as he was with Lucky Palace’s idiosyncratic wine list. It includes about 300 selections from a collection of roughly 1,200 bottles stored in racks that line the dining rooms, as well as in a closet near the cash register. Mr. Sloan pointed to bottles of Chateau Musar, from Lebanon, and some aged chenin blancs from the Loire Valley, as representative of Mr. Lim’s taste.

“You can see his personality in the wines he serves,” said Mr. Sloan, 48. “This guy isn’t buying off some guide.”

Chris Hunter, 61, a longtime wine wholesaler in New Orleans, said: “Lim is happy to turn people on to wine that they can afford, and that isn’t that highly rated. He’s an old-style host and restaurateur who has an ability to treat everybody like they’re the only people he’s talking to.”

Lucky Palace is not the secret it used to be. The British wine writer Clive Coates has been co-host of several wine dinners at Lucky Palace. Ms. Lim said she has seen an increase in tourist traffic since the restaurant was featured in an episode of the TV series “True South” in 2018. For the last three years, it has been a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine Program award.

Kevin Hill, a geophysicist in the oil business and a Lucky Palace regular, is among several friends who have urged Mr. Lim to take better advantage of his renown by moving his restaurant to a more attractive location. He even found a new space, and offered to buy it.

“We were going to give it to him rent-free,” Mr. Hill said. “He said: ‘It’s Lucky Palace. I’ve been lucky here. I want to stay.’”

The dinner honoring Mr. Lim last month began with salt-and-pepper cuttlefish, paired with Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs, a moderately priced nonvintage Champagne. “I always like to pair this with Champagne,” said Mr. Lim, who sat at the head of the table.

The restaurant now seats only 60 diners, half of its normal capacity, in keeping with state rules in the pandemic, and the bar is usually closed.

“I miss this,” said Lane Pittard, a local district judge, as he settled in for dinner. “We miss seeing Lim here.”

Mr. Pittard and his wife, Adelise, have continued to eat at Lucky Palace once a week during the pandemic, as they have for 20 years, even if only for takeout. They regularly bring meals to Mr. Lim at his house.

“Lim loves soul food — black-eyed peas, cornbread, stuff like that,” Mr. Pittard said.

Mr. Lim has lived alone since he and Evelyn divorced 10 years ago. She and their son, Joshua, live in New York City. Ms. Lim, who had started working at the restaurant in the mid-2000s, stepped in to take over Evelyn’s management duties.

“Lim’s ex-wife is my best friend,” she said. “Kind of weird, I know.”

The divorce was a difficult transition for both Mr. Lim and Lucky Palace. He had to become an American citizen to keep the restaurant’s liquor license, which was in Evelyn’s name.

Mr. Pittard helped cut through legal red tape. Karen Vanderkuy, a local chef and restaurateur, drove Mr. Lim to New Orleans to complete the paperwork. (During the pandemic, she brings him duck-truffle pâté, his favorite dish from her restaurant, the Market.)

Citizenship saved Lucky Palace, but didn’t change Mr. Lim, according to the chef Mr. Bridges. “I told Lim, ‘There are two things you need to learn how to do, now that you’re an American citizen: You need to learn how to lie, and you need to put yourself first,’” he said. “As an American, he’s a complete failure.”

Today, Ms. Lim anchors a staff of 14 — down just one from pre-Covid levels — that is unusually close. Dexter Huewitt, 45, worked with Ms. Lim at another restaurant before joining Lucky Palace’s staff 10 years ago. He is also a minister.

“Dexter preached my father’s funeral and my brother’s funeral,” said Ms. Lim, “and he assisted with my daughter’s funeral.”

The arrival of a signature dish, crisp-skinned duck breast served on a scallion pancake, inspired a brief round of applause. It is Lucky Palace’s answer to Peking duck. To go with it, Mr. Lim chose an Arcadian Sleepy Hollow Vineyard pinot noir from 2001, a revered vintage in California, after consulting with Mr. Davis, whom he called during the meal to thank.

Mr. Lim was not feeling his best. He had just regained his appetite the day before, following his latest round of cancer treatments. It was only the second time he had drunk wine since March. “I don’t taste as well as I used to,” he said.

He still appeared to enjoy sharing some of his favorite bottles. He opened a 1994 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva to drink with a flat-noodle osso buco, an off-the-menu special usually served in the colder months. After dinner, he poured a bottle of Jacques Selosse “Initial” Blanc de Blancs, “one of maybe nine bottles in the state of Louisiana,” he said. Lucky Palace sells it for $246, a shade less than the retail price.

“Lim charges way too little for wine,” said Barry Regula, 60, the general manager of two local casinos, Margaritaville and Boomtown. The annual benefit dinner that Mr. Regula co-founded three years ago to help pay Mr. Lim’s medical bills is on hold this year because of the coronavirus.

Uncertainty over when friends will be able to dine again with Mr. Lim at Lucky Palace hung in the air. Mr. Lim said nobody in his family is interested in taking over the business. But Ms. Lim has vowed to keep it going should anything happen to its owner. “Lim is Lim, and I will make sure that his memory is carried on,” she said.

His legacy was secured long ago. Mr. Jay, the writer, recalled saving up his money as a younger man to educate himself on food and wine, inspired by Anthony Bourdain.

“I grew up in a single-wide trailer in Sarepta, La.,” he said, choking back tears. “I never felt that any of the food-and-drink people wanted me around. That was the vibe everywhere, except for at Lucky Palace.”

Mr. Jay said he has already imagined its passing.

“I feel like it’s Shangri-La,” he said. “We’re all going to drive up one day, and it will be gone. The hotel clerk will say, ‘There was never a Chinese restaurant here.’”

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