Times are hard in the restaurant business these days.

For one of San Antonio’s oldest eateries, it’s the stories of bravery, hard work and tenacity, told and retold, that keep it going. 

Family bonds, and the fish with gravy, keep it thriving. 

Golden Star Cafe, a Westside institution for nearly a century, is unique for its longevity in a fast-burn industry and its blended diner-style menu of traditional Chinese, American and Mexican fare. 

The restaurant marked its 90th anniversary recently with local officials, loyal customers and longtime workers on hand — and a lion dance to bring good luck and fortune.

“Many things have come and gone since 1932, but throughout that time, one entity has become a fixture … on the landscape of San Antonio and that is the Golden Star Cafe,” said former mayor Henry Cisneros, who grew up on the West Side.

It was a milestone third-generation owner Bo Jean Lim wasn’t sure they would see. 

The cafe opened in 1932 just blocks from its current location at 821 W. Commerce St. Owner Koon Yen Lim, known as Papa Lim, was 13 years old when, chasing the American dream, he emigrated with two brothers from what was then known as the Chinese city of Canton, now Guangzhou, to California, and then San Antonio.

Lim ran the restaurant with his wife, Nu Lee Wong Lim. Later, they had help from their daughter Cheung Mee (Lim) Hui, her husband Chi Tai Hui, and son Shew Gai Lim, who went by Raymond, and his wife Yuen Lim, known as Mama Lim.

In those early days, a sign above the restaurant in a busy commercial district advertised its “chop suey” and American Chinese food. A black-and-white photo of the original cafe hangs on the wall in the entryway across from the posted specials and T-shirts for sale.

Patrons dine at Golden Star Cafe as the Westside staple celebrates 90 years of business this year.
Patrons dine at Golden Star Cafe as the Westside staple celebrates 90 years of business this year. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The establishment twice moved to different locations on West Commerce Street, but the menu remained largely the same and the restaurant is still run by family members. Open Mondays through Saturdays, Golden Star closes each Sunday, along with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

On the South Frio Street corner where Golden Star has been since 1983, the restaurant stands out among the office buildings and convenience stores in the area. Behind the tiled roof entrance, decorative iron gate and red pillars flanking the doors is a typical cafe except for the golden dragons encircling ornately carved posts.

Papa Lim worked at the restaurant up until the day he died in the late 1970s.

His granddaughter, Bo, grew up spending long hours in the back rooms of the Golden Star Cafe and now owns the restaurant with her brother, Kwok Min “Alex” Lim, and five other siblings. 

Bo Lim remembers the times when her grandfather butchered meat in the kitchen and when her parents tag-teamed to keep the restaurant open around the clock. She can still hear Freddy Fender’s 1975 hit, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” playing on the old jukebox.

The family worked hard together and persevered through many trials, she said, and their example inspires her in the face of modern-day challenges. 

“If my grandfather could do it like that, then I can keep going,” Lim said.

A pandemic and a landmark 

The struggles of running a restaurant six days a week began to mount in 2020 when the spread of COVID-19 shuttered restaurants everywhere. 

Like many eateries, the Golden Star did a pandemic pivot to takeout, setting up an assembly line in part of the dining room and taking orders by phone. It wasn’t enough to balance the books, but they persevered, Lim said. 

Then, in June 2021, the Lims countered an unexpected backlash. 

When a dilapidated warehouse on their property had become a danger to the public, the family requested permission from the City of San Antonio to demolish the structure. 

The warehouse at Golden Star Cafe is currently at the heart of a lawsuit between restaurant ownership and the City of San Antonio.
The warehouse at Golden Star Cafe is currently at the heart of a lawsuit between restaurant ownership and the City of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But the building, known as the Whitt Printing building, had been deemed historic and was considered a landmark in the Cattleman Square Historic District. After community advocates for the Westside neighborhood protested, the demolition was halted — but not the harassment Lim said they suffered. 

“We had people calling up the restaurant telling us, ‘We’re going to educate you on what your employers are doing to the West Side,’” Lim said. “We also had a lot of discriminatory things said to us and it was during prime COVID time, too, so Chinese sentiment wasn’t exactly [good].”

The owners filed a lawsuit against the city, but Lim would not comment further because the case is still pending. 

She said the experience left her weary but defiant. “We are part of this community. We’re not any different,” Lim said. “We could have left this community, but we stayed. We could have moved anytime in the 90 years, but we stayed at this location.”

‘Always a second home’

Irene Ramirez hopes they always will. 

Ramirez said she has been dining at the restaurant since was 4 years old, or as far back as she can remember. That was 40 years ago and today her favorite is still the chicken chop suey. 

She often dines at the Golden Star at least twice a week and, before the pandemic, sat in her favorite booth in the dining room until that section was closed for packing to-go orders.

When her son, Anthony Ramirez, 22, was working in Louisiana, the restaurant and its chicken and broccoli dish are some of the things he missed most. “It’s always going to be a second home for me,” he said. 

Like Lim, Irene Ramirez worries about the restaurant and keeping it all going. “Don’t close on me, Bo,” Ramirez pleaded with Lim. “I’ve tried other Chinese places and it’s just not the same.”

In fact, when road construction began to envelop the restaurant earlier this year, many regulars thought Golden Star had closed down.

The owners hung signs directing traffic to a back entrance along West Houston Street widening a gate there, and tried to get the word out on social media. But business dropped by half, Lim said. 

Adding to their troubles is increased vagrancy and criminal activity that comes with the restaurant’s proximity to a homeless shelter. 

“Luckily for us, we have retirement money to fund this business and still keep it going, but how much longer can a business stay like that?” she said. 

Mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins

On a recent weekday afternoon, a steady stream of customers came and went and the tables and booths were almost full. Maria Arias had given friend and former coworker Sara Ramirez a ride to the restaurant that day.

Arias, 53, began waiting tables at Golden Star when she was 16 years old, following her mother, sisters and cousins who also worked at the restaurant. Arias’ daughter eventually joined the crew. 

Ramirez, 55, applied for a job there in 1990 when her daughter was 2 years old, and retired recently after it became difficult to walk. That daughter also later worked at the cafe.

“I’m very blessed to be here that long,” Ramirez said. “I wish I could work again.”

Lim said she was welcome back anytime. “I told her she could come and do anything she wants,” she said.

When Arias and Ramirez were working, it wasn’t unusual for them and others to bring their children along whenever school was out. The children sat at a table in the dining room and played and snacked together while their mothers waited tables. 

“This is the way of life here,” Lim said. “This is how we make things work. They work with us, we work with them. And this is how you have people, good people, to stay because you need to make sure that you figure out how to make things work for them.”

Golden Star Cafe is located on W Commerce Street among a construction zone that has closed off typical street access and caused lost business for the 90-year-old restaurant.
Golden Star Cafe is located on West Commerce Street in a construction zone that has closed off typical street access and caused lost business for the 90-year-old restaurant. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Lim, who is 53 years old, does not have children and it’s unknown whether her brother’s teenage kids will want to run the restaurant someday. “It’s a hard life,” she admits. 

The owner hopes to keep it going because the thought of leaving the people she calls “family,” also would be hard. 

Lim does not use the word lightly: “When I say that, I genuinely mean it because they really are family,” she said of her customers. “That’s what keeps me, seriously, going every day.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.