When Wing Tam bought Kip's Café from his Uncle Kip in 1980, the place was a Chinese restaurant on Main Street. By the early '90s, the venue had shifted to a shopping center on North Second Street in El Cajon, while the menu had followed the tastes of the dining public and added a Japanese element. The expansion was not a huge stretch for Tam, who has been working in restaurants since coming to America 38 years ago. "My brother owned China Land restaurant on Midway," he says, "one of the really famous places. I was 13; they threw me in the kitchen as a dishwasher. When I finished my dishes, the chef gave me work to do. Pretty soon, I was doing chef's work but getting paid as a dishwasher. My brother couldn't give me more money, but I enjoyed the work." And though the sign in the restaurant window identifies the cuisine as Chinese-Japanese, Tam recently returned from a four-day cooking intensive in Thailand. He goes where his interests take him.
Next year, Kip's Café will celebrate its 50th anniversary in El Cajon. Tam plans to celebrate the event, in part, with a slew of promotional items. "Some small knives and things from China" — he has a brother-in-law in Hong Kong who helps him dig things up. One of his finds: waiter-style corkscrews with heavy-duty worms and curved, inlaid-wood handles, reminiscent of the high-end models produced by Laguiole. But while Laguiole corkscrews usually start around $50, the Kip's version, engraved with the restaurant's logo, is $9.99 with a $25 restaurant tab.
It may seem an atypical bit of schwag from a bustling Chinese-Japanese restaurant in an East County strip mall, but it fits with Tam's interests. My recent lunch with him made for an afternoon of firsts; for one, my first Bordeaux (an '89 Gruaud Larose) with sea bass. "A lot of people say to me that you have to have certain foods with certain wines. I don't agree with that. When I went to France, I heard that the king got the wine list first, and then the food. Sometimes he was drinking all Mouton-Rothschild. Sometimes my friends and I bring all Cabernet Sauvignon to a Chinese restaurant where they serve a lot of seafood. If you don't think the wine marries with the food, you just drink your wine separately. Drink some water, then eat your seafood. I'm a little bit different. I like the wine, I like the food."
Tam discovered the '89 Larose during a vertical tasting of the '89, '90, and '91 vintages. "People didn't like the '89 because it's hard to drink right after you open the bottle. They left half the bottle for me, and the more I drank it, the more I liked it. I bought a case. I've learned to drink older wines. My friends don't like it; they like fruity, new wines."
Five years ago, Tam was drinking new wine as well — young Bordeaux, in fact. "I was drinking a little bit of wine. I heard Bordeaux was good, so I bought them and drank them. I sort of liked them and sort of didn't. I didn't know anything about Bordeaux; I didn't know that you don't drink them young. I didn't have time to learn about wine."
His wife convinced him to close the restaurant on Mondays and signed him up for one of local guru Dick Colangelo's wine classes. "Dick asked everybody, 'What do you like about wine?' I said, 'I don't know anything about wine; I'm learning.' " Tam became Colangelo's devoted pupil and his friend, taking every class he could and plunging headlong into wine. Construction is nearing completion on Tam's underground home cellar, and his Blossom Valley vineyard has just been finished. "I took Dick up there, and he advised me. This area is good for Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Nebbiolo" — so that's what Tam planted.
His fellow Colangelo devotees started gathering at Kip's before heading over to class at the El Cajon Community Center. "I'd cook them private dinners, and we'd eat and drink. They started feeling like once a week was not enough." So was born the Wednesday Night Winos. "Everybody looks forward to it. You bring a $10--$20 bottle to share. We have live music — accordion and violin. I've gotten to know a lot of friends; we share the same interests. It's what I like to do; my friends come over, we start drinking wine and having fun. That's priceless."
Besides its more social blessings, wine has also provided an excuse to go globetrotting. "All my life I've been working. I never went anywhere." Once the owner of four restaurants, he has sold all but this one to allow himself more time for travel. "I get to go and check out the vineyards at Mouton in France; I can check out the wineries in Barbaresco and Barolo. I've been to China five times in the past year. Chinese Cabernet can be very good; just like in America, you get what you pay for. They've brought in French winemakers to help with production."
And besides friendship and travel, there is the simple pleasure of the wine itself. Empty bottles crowd a shelf running along the restaurant's wall; they gather on unused surfaces. Tam points out an '86 Whitehall Lane Cabernet brought in by a friend. "He's with a distributor, and every time he comes in he brings a couple of older wines. I go all out, buying everything just to taste it. Last year, on my 50th birthday, I wished to taste the world's best wine before my time. Certain things I like to buy; I don't care how much it costs. If you don't try, you'll never know." A friend in San Luis Obispo introduced Tam to Red Burgundy via La Tache and Romanee-Conti, and he began investing. The cellar at Kip's boasts the '00 vintage of Margaux, Lafite, Mouton, Haut-Brion, and Latour, along with a '99 Petrus — not that you'll find them on the wine list, which is built around the idea of a worldwide selection under $20 a bottle. "People complained when we stopped serving wine by the liter," remarks Tam; but again, he was following his interests, hoping customers would come along for the ride.