You can tell a Chinese restaurant isn’t thrilled with every menu item when the fonts of some dishes are italicized, the details are sparse, and they reside in a dark corner of the menu. Chinese-American commodities are often relegated this way.
The Tea House restaurant does not pretend. Under the heading American Classics are 13 dishes without pictures. Instead, there are dish explanations as concise as a warning, and written without ceremony too. Descriptors such as “dark sauce” and “light sauce” will have this effect.
It’s a shame, because I love Chinese-American cuisine for the way it catches the sweet, salty, and sour trifecta with addictive textures. Tea House is my favorite Chinese restaurant in the Twin Cities, and their General Tao Chicken is, as expected, terrific.
You can order dishes like this, and you’ll eat well while delving into the classics. But you’d be committing the culinary equivalent of visiting Disney World without staying for the fireworks.
In this Tea House, a 12-year-old restaurant on University Avenue SE. which shares a sleepy lot with a Days Inn, the fireworks are always on – and they continue to delight.
Fireworks certainly hit you in different ways, and they’re unique to the provinces they originate from. Vinegar as complex as balsamic but so astringent that it makes you wince? It’s Shanghai. Peppercorns, whose warmth envelops your throat and throbs? Sichuan, with its hyper-emphasis on numbing spices. And these comforting stews with floral notes that fade, like the colors of Debussy’s “La Mer”? Anhui, with intimate staples that draw on the region’s many spices.
You’ll taste the distinction with dishes like Chicken Mala, where bite-sized pieces of bone-in chicken are fried and covered in dried Szechuan chili peppers; or tofu, shaped into generously sized cubes and braised with belt buckle-sized slices of pork belly. The stew has lots of spices, including star anise, and it is deeply aromatic.
It’s one of the few recipes Yolanda Wang, co-owner of Tea House, asked her grandmother, who ran a restaurant in Anhui, one of the smallest regions in China, with an area of about nearly as large as North Carolina.
Wang didn’t have much cooking experience beyond what she learned from her grandmother. When she and her immediate family immigrated here, opening a restaurant was not her plan.
But after moving from Louisiana to Minnesota with her husband, Daniel, to find a contractor for his family’s electronics business, she thought more about a restaurant. In 1998, when Tea House Plymouth, then a family restaurant offering Chinese-American cuisine, became available, the couple and Wang’s sister, Melissa, bought it and began introducing select dishes from their hometown. . Over time, their ambitions grew.
Soon they acquired additional properties in the metro area that became teahouses — one in St. Paul, another in downtown Minneapolis, the one on University Avenue — and eventually sold all but one.
The present tea house, with its elaborate coffered ceilings, antique wooden chairs and curtained private cabins, is reminiscent of a tea house. Here you can dress up (celebrations) or relax (dinner). Lighting is always flattering. Brunch is particularly popular, a time when foreign students and local families visit. No matter when you go, the food, even with its patchwork of regional variations, is always buttoned up. No other Chinese restaurant in the area is comparable.
Somehow everything tastes sharper, brighter, tastier. The spices are there, but they don’t taunt. There is balance.
House Spicy Fish, where slices of fish fillet, as soft as tofu, float in a lip-smacking stew teeming with peppercorns, bean sprouts and cabbage. It’s warm but streamlined – and smooth with enough oil to temper. If you’ve been to a restaurant in Sichuan, you’ve come across a variation of this dish. Few are as complete.
Wang’s Kung Pao chicken is golden brown with a sauce that clings but isn’t cloying. It’s spicy, yes, but it has to be when the sweet and spicy attract attention. I couldn’t stop eating it. Flavor lovers should consider the cumin lamb. The dish originates from Xinjiang, a region in northwest China, and borrows influences from the regions it borders – Mongolia, India, among others – so the cumin is straight forward. You have to embrace its musk to appreciate the dish, and you have to rest between bites to avoid being overwhelmed by it, but the velvety strips of lamb are so tender that I ignored that directive.
To take it down a notch, go for the Potato Beef, where the meat quivers and the sauce is (gloriously) sticky, or the Braised Meatballs, as big as billiard balls and light as Italian meringue. It serves two but can easily be demolished by one. Tucked inside are baby bok choy, but you really should order your greens. A-Choy, a leafy vegetable sautéed with vicious amounts of garlic, is my go-to, but the slightly chewy pea tips and plump Szechuan green beans are also favorites. You will be lavished anyway.
If you’re looking beyond the regions, don’t worry. Years ago, Wang licensed several recipes from Meizhou Dongpo, a restaurant chain in Sichuan. Chief among them is the Serrano Pepper Beef, one of the restaurant’s simplest dishes. The brisket, with a band of gelatinous fat, is sliced so thinly that the meat wrinkles as it simmers in a light but flavorful broth. On top are pepper pits, vibrant and slightly sweet.
It thrilled me from first bite to last, not only because it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten in recent memory, but because it was a dish I couldn’t place the provenance – unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
Then again, there’s nothing in the Twin Cities like Tea House.
2425 University Ave SE., Mpls., 612-331-8866, teahouseumn.com
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune’s food critic. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on @intrepid_glutton.
A previous version of this story had the incorrect location of Xinjiang. It is a region in the northwest of China.