A local libation landmark is making a comeback.
It’s Wanderers Punch, a staple in the bar at the former Nankin (pictured, above, in 1981). Wanderers was so famous – or is that infamous? – that its name wasn’t only a noun, it was also used as a verb. As in, “to go Wandering.”
After an 18-year absence, this high-octane libation is being reintroduced to a new and dramatically different cocktailing era, courtesy of the Pourhouse and Edmund Wu. He and his family were the restaurant's final owners.
“I’m 33 years old, and I didn’t grow up with the culture of the Nankin,” said Jared Golde, director of operations at Empire Entertainment, parent company of the Pourhouse. “But whenever I mention the Nankin, and Wanderers Punch, I get this wonderful reaction from people. You can see the memory just floating through their eyes, it’s a renaissance of happiness. This decades-old cultural icon really means something to people. I can’t think of another local cocktail that has that kind of reputation. We’re humbled that the Wu family has entrusted the recipe to us.”
There’s a nice bit of geographical symmetry at play, since the Nankin’s last home was two blocks south of the Pourhouse’s Lumber Exchange Building address. And when the first one goes out (starting Sunday, at 4 p.m.), a drinkable bit of downtown Minneapolis history will be coming back to life.
As far as the recipe goes, Wu said this is no knockoff, and no memory-fogged guessing game. His family was the restaurant’s last owner, and he insists that the Pourhouse version is based on the honest-to-goodness Wanderers formula, and not some internet-based facsimile.
“We keep the recipe really secret,” he said. “Only I have carried the recipe. Of course, people try to copy it because it’s really famous, and really successful. Everyone who stopped downtown to do their drinking, they would go to the Nankin first, for the Wanderers, before they would go anywhere. But I have kept it a secret, to honor my family, and to honor the recipe.”
Is it a complicated formula? “Yes,” said Golde with a laugh. “I wish I could disclose all of the ingredients, but due to the licensing agreement I can’t say much.”
This much he can disclose: Wanderers is a rum-based drink.
“And I can say that we’re keeping everything the same,” he said. “It’s important to Mr. Wu that we didn’t change anything. It’s the same liquors, the same ingredients, the same fruit garnishes, and the same glasses.”
Well, kind of; the originals were 33-ounce snifters, and their contemporary counterparts will be 14-ounce goblets.
“We want to reintroduce it to people carefully because it’s definitely a potent cocktail,” said Golde with a laugh. The introductory price is $9. “That comes with a souvenir glass,” he added.
Why now? After all, the Nankin has been a memory for nearly 20 years, enough time to generate a new generation of post-Wanderers drinkers.
“But people are still talking about the Nankin, and the food and the drink,” said Wu. “Why not bring this signature drink back to downtown Minneapolis, where it belongs? I’m glad to be reviving the memory. These are the people to bring it back, and do it well. Now is the time.”
For those unfamiliar with the restaurant, here’s a Nankin primer, courtesy of Minneapolis Star columnist Karin Winegar. Her observations date to August 1981, which, in retrospect, was the beginning of the end of the Nankin’s glory days; at the time, the restaurant was about to move to its third and final location. Winegar summed up her affection for the place this way:
“Take the Nankin’s food,” she wrote. “It’s copious, it’s fast, it’s hot. But it is not gourmet by any definition. Numbers one through seven [items on the lengthy menu, probably variations on the kitchen’s famous chow mein] seem comprised of equal parts brown sauce, celery (Nankin customers consume 20 crates a day) and crunchy noodles (fried on site). The eggs foo yung are the size and texture of junior Frisbees and the sauces arrive in medical-looking paper cups. Enough ‘wanderer’s punch,’ however, and no one notices.
“The cheerful, hardcore and silent bus help are part of a crew of some 200 workers, said to be the largest restaurant staff in town. Nankin waitresses and waiters don’t serve as much as deal the plates like cards. They zoom in and out the swinging doors, zip up and down the carpeted stairs. The public never sees the 30 Nankin chefs, 20 of whom can only speak Chinese.
“Together, they crack out some 3,000 meals daily (that's the kitchen, in a 1978 Star Tribune file photo). That’s almost a million a year. And in a town which seems to slam its shutters around 9 p.m., the Nankin could be relied upon to serve food until late at night.”
Walter James founded the restaurant in 1919 at 14 S. 7th St., a storefront between the Radisson Hotel and the Hennepin Avenue corner. Thirty years later, he sold the restaurant to the Golden and Chalfen families.
When the Park and Shop (formerly Dayton-Radisson) parking ramp went up in the late 1950s, the Nankin relocated across the street to 15 S. 7th St.
It moved again in 1981, after the restaurant was demolished to make way for the Marriott City Center hotel. The Nankin's final spot anchored the corner of 7th and Hennepin; the site is now occupied by Fogo de Chao.
The Wu family owned the restaurant during its last decade. By that time, the Nankin's traditional Chinese-American menu had fallen from favor, and its “new” City Center home (pictured, above) lacked its predecessor’s charm. The restaurant quietly sputtered to a close in February 1999, after a remarkable 80-year run.
A Wanderers postscript: Ten years ago, someone under the guise of a former Nankin bartender posted their recollection of the recipe online; who knows if it’s credible. Even the self-described “bartender” had their reservations. “It’s been 10 years, so I hope this is right,” they wrote.
It’s a party-sized portion, prepared in five-gallon increments – yikes -- and “We’d go through 8 to 10 batches on weekend nights,” they wrote (yikes, squared).
This internet version of Wanderers calls for four varieties of rum: Bacardi for the light and golden rums, and Meyer’s for the dark rum, although “using better booze than this is kind of wasteful for this drink, in my opinion,” they wrote, adding that “the Nankin used rail.”
In a 5-gallon container (and no, that is not a typo), combine 1 gallon orange juice, 1 liter sweet-and-sour mix and 2/3 bottle Rose’s Grenadine (“the tall bottle,” they wrote, “this is the amount I can’t remember for sure”). Then add ½ liter Triple Sec, 1 liter light rum, 1 liter dark rum, 1 liter golden rum and 1 liter 151-proof rum. Mix well, serve “in a big fishbowl glass” over ice with a maraschino cherry and an orange slice. “Paper parasol optional,” they wrote.
A final note, and a notable one. “This is an extremely intoxicating beverage,” they wrote. “Do not drink on an empty stomach. Don’t let its pretty pink color fool you; most people are sloshed before they finish their second one. It is called the Wanderer because when you try to get up from your barstool you commonly find yourself unable to walk a straight line. If you underestimate this drink, I am not responsible for your actions, whether you remember them or not.”