Friday, December 2, 2022     Volume: 23, Issue: 40
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Golden Moon is a family-run restaurant that raises the bar for Chinese cuisine on the Central Coast

BULBUL RAJAGOPAL

I’ve spent a lot of time on San Luis Obispo County’s sparse number of buses. By the time they’re done slowly meandering, I’m always hungry but invariably stuffed with a little more information about this sliver of the Central Coast. 

Golden Moon Chinese Restaurant revved up both my appetite and curiosity when I caught a glimpse of it as my bus crawled through Arroyo Grande in late summer. Always on the hunt for good Chinese food on the Central Coast, I made elaborate plans with two hungry friends as soon as I got home. Finally, on Oct. 20, we sunk into the eatery’s cozy booth, ready to chow down.


FAMILY BOND
Restaurant manager Joanne Phung’s (right) parents, Albert and Kim (left), bought Golden Moon in 1998 and have since been operating it as a fully family-run business.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“Would you like to make your garlic chicken extra spicy? We put Thai chilies in them,” restaurant manager Joanne Phung asked us.

Extra spicy, please. 

We made the right choice. The caramelized garlic tempered the Thai chilies’ fire beautifully. The chicken was crispy yet saucy. We were armed with large glasses of chilled Sapporo beer. Perfect equilibrium. 

Phung helps her parents, Albert and Kim, run Golden Moon. The family bought the restaurant from its previous owners in 1998 when Phung was a toddler.

“My dad was a refugee from the Vietnam War. So he came to the U.S. when he was 18 and was in Santa Maria at the age of 23. He’s been cooking for around 30 years,” she said. 

Warm welcome
Call Golden Moon at (805) 481-2298 to make reservations, or walk into the Arroyo Grande restaurant at 1165 E. Grand Ave. Closed on Tuesdays, Golden Moon is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

He met Kim on one of his trips to China; they returned to Santa Maria together and eventually moved to Arroyo Grande to take over Golden Moon. Since then, the white and red building has become a familiar favorite for hungry patrons across the Central Coast, but the establishment’s origins are still a source of mystery.

“I don’t know too much about what it was before a restaurant. Customers here and there will tell me about it,” Phung said. “I had this lady come in three or four years ago, she was in her 70s, and she said it was her grandparents’ house.”

The restaurant is welcoming, tidy, and homey. Furnished with dark wood and peppered with red lanterns that overlook a small garden in the back, the dining room has a comforting aura that reminded me of visiting Chinese restaurants for dinner with my family. 

“We’ve had customers who have actually watched my siblings and me growing up. Oftentimes, I’ve had customers come in and say, ‘I remember when you were little and did math homework by that table,’” Phung said with a laugh. “Well, I still do math homework at that table, but I just grew up.”


PORK TENDER
Golden Moon’s barbecued pork fried rice is a delightful and affordable hit at $11.95.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Phung is a math major at Cal Poly who balances college classes with food preparation for the restaurant. An average day for her looks like waking up at 8 a.m., attending class on campus, visiting professors after hours, and then getting to the restaurant in the afternoon to prep for service. 

“My parents immigrated here and didn’t have any money. It was all about the American dream, and in a way, they have achieved that,” she said. “The whole business represents an easier future.”

Twenty-four years into living that dream, the family continues to work hard. They rotate their food preparation responsibilities, with Phung’s father leading it. He chops vegetables, marinates and slices meat, creates batters for fried dishes like their sweet and sour chicken, and makes wonton fillings. Phung and her mother help him while also stocking ingredients and manning the front of the restaurant.

“Sometimes, we truly are out of something. There are times when we are out of [prepared] string beans, and I’m frantically peeling string beans by hand. Or we’re out of broccoli and everyone wants beef and broccoli,” Phung said. “But we always make sure we’re OK.”

Phung’s younger sister, Vanlisa, used to help out at Golden Moon too. She worked there the longest out of the three siblings but moved to Fresno for higher education, which made Phung assume more responsibilities. Both sisters told New Times that it’s hard to find quality Chinese food spots on the Central Coast because the diversity of the cuisine has to be restrained.


LOYAL TO DAD
Restaurant manager Joanne Phung loves her father’s hot and sour soup so much that she refuses to order it at any other eatery.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“The thing about Chinese food is that there are so many different kinds of it. China has so many different regions, and each region has its own kind of food. Here on the Central Coast, we have to cater to the demographic,” Phung said. “If you go to the Bay or LA, you can get pig intestines or pig ears at the restaurants. You can’t serve stuff like that here.”

Phung added that the family has discussed serving more items that are unfamiliar to SLO County palates, but decided not to because it could be risky for their small business. 

Golden Moon’s prices are comparatively lower than many of the Chinese restaurants in the county. We got the house chow mein and barbecued pork fried rice for roughly $12 each, and walnut shrimp for $14.95, among other dishes. But the affordability comes at a cost to the family. Phung said that they’re able to keep the prices low because the entire business is run by the three family members, and it’s hard to find more employees. 

“We need to hire more people, but [we’re] each handling a job meant for three different people,” she said. “The reality is that if we hired so many people, with the location and the foot traffic that we get, we probably would not be as successful as we are, unfortunately. Nobody wants to work that kind of job because it’s so demanding.”

Still, Golden Moon’s food is worth paying attention to on the Central Coast. We daydreamed about the barbecued pork fried rice for days later. My friend loved the fried walnut chunks in the walnut shrimp; the bok choy was silky; the sweet and sour chicken was delicious enough to comfort someone like me, who misses the breadth of big-city dining options. 

Phung swears by her father’s hot and sour soup.

“I think my dad makes the best hot and sour soup,” she said. “I refuse to eat it anywhere else!”

Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal, from the Sun’s sister paper, finally found her favorite Chinese restaurant on the Central Coast. Send cheers to brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.










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What do you think about a farmworker resource center in Santa Barbara County?

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