When Woo Yee Sing arrived in San Francisco from China, his only dream was to build a successful business in America. He didn’t count on the strong anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping up and down the west coast once the railroad was completed and Chinese labor was no longer needed. Not easily deterred, Woo Yee Sing moved to Minneapolis in 1880 and opened a laundry business and then an import shop. His brother Woo Du Sing joined him in 1883. The pair opened Canton Restaurant on Marquette Avenue S. It was the first Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis.
The brothers decided in 1903 to move the restaurant into a larger, second-floor space at 28 South Sixth Street. The new address came with a new name, Yuen Faung Low, meaning Cafe of Exotic Fragrances from Afar. Customers knew Woo Yee Sing as John, so when Minneapolitans found it challenging to remember the restaurant’s name, they started calling it John’s Place.
Entering An Exotic World
Diners entered through double doors from Sixth Street and climbed up a steep flight of 22 marble steps to the dining room. Once at the top, they entered a world many had never experienced. Glowing Chinese lanterns hung throughout the 250-seat dining room. Imported embroidered silk panels and camphor wood carvings decorated the walls. A rich, spicy fragrance hung in the air and mingled with the smell of the exotic food being prepared in the kitchen. Diners were seated at one of the restaurant’s ornate teakwood tables acquired in the 1940s from another Chinese restaurant when it went out of business. Each had a decorative floral and bird motif, a mother-of-pearl inlay, and a marble top. The tables were so memorable that it’s what many diners remember most about the restaurant. When their food arrived, it was served on authentic Chinese porcelain.
Although other Chinese restaurants opened in Minneapolis after John’s Place, none had the right mix of exotic atmosphere and good food that the Woo brothers created. When the Nankin opened one block away in 1919, many wondered if Minneapolis could support two Chinese restaurants. It was the first real competitor John’s Place had, and it would remain that way for decades. Both restaurants thrived in the city because of slight differences in how they prepared popular dishes and the atmosphere created by the owners.
A Memorable Dining Experience
John’s Place was often cited in travel guides as one of the top places for travelers to eat in Minneapolis. Duncan Hines included John’s Place in nearly all editions of his guidebook, Adventures in Good Eating, as one of the author’s favored restaurants in the city. It was also named one of the best restaurants in Gourmet Magazine’s Guide to Good Eating. Newspapers reported that John’s Place was also a favorite of Mae West (and her five bodyguards), Jack Benny, and Eddie Cantor.
After Woo Yee Sing died in 1925, followed by Woo Du Sing in 1933, their relatives took over the restaurant. They operated the restaurant together for another four decades. When the lease on their second-floor building space wasn’t renewed in 1967, the family decided to close the restaurant.
Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs
- 1 pound spare ribs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- ½ cup flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup vinegar
- 1 cup meat stock
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup green pepper or pineapple, chopped
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon Chinese molasses
- Dredge ribs in flour and salt first. Then add eggs to the remaining flour and mix. Coat ribs again in the egg and flour mixture.
- Drip individually into a deep fat fryer preheated to 325°. Cook until golden brown and cooked through.
- In the meantime, boil vinegar, meat stock, and sugar. Add green pepper or pineapple.
- Mix together cornstarch and water. Add to the sauce and boil until thickened. Add Chinese molasses.
- Add sauce over fried ribs. Serve immediately so the crust on the ribs doesn't become soggy.