Pop Szechuan

Ping's Szechuan Bar and Grill

1401 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; 874-9404

At 15 Minh Quoc Tran stood guard with an M-16 over his family's Saigon home. At 18 he nearly starved serving in the ill-supported South Vietnamese army. Then, by an almost unimaginable wrench of fate, at 20 he was in Duluth, cooking at the old Chinese Lantern.

Today, Tran is the head of a small empire--the phenomenally successful Ping's Szechuan Bar and Grill, on the corner of 14th and Nicollet. Ping's constantly wins awards, from Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, from Corporate Report, even, sometimes, from City Pages. The restaurant is consistently bustling, with downtown regulars and conventioneers wearing ugly paper badges clustered beneath the pink box-kites that hang from the ceiling, all delighted with their generous portions of Moo Shoo Pork and Cashew Chicken, some sipping tall, rummy, fruity Ping's drinks.

Through it all, lunch and dinner, seven days a week, making every sauce, overseeing every Peking Duck, is Tran. He's so successful he's been able to bring his whole family over to this country--his parents, three brothers, two sisters, and grandmother. Every once in a while Tran emerges from the kitchen to look at what's happening in the dining room. The weekend before last I saw him approach a crying child with a fortune cookie and funny faces: He left the child laughing. Ping's is, in many ways, not merely a restaurant, but a triumph of will, spirit, and determination.

Which is why it's so difficult to admit that I thought Ping's was a good restaurant, but not a thrilling one. Certain dishes were wonderful, like the Sen Sen Soup ($4.25), a remarkable assortment of tender shrimp, silver-dollar-sized chicken slices, and al dente veggies like bamboo shoots and baby corn in a rich chicken broth. It's an understated soup, with each item entirely individuated from the others, and one that would have been ruined by another thirty seconds of high heat. The Hot and Sour Soup ($3.25) was also very good, the broth tart, spicy, and slightly briny, blending without blurring the tastes of the various ingredients. The Egg Drop soup, though, was unpleasant, goopy and all running together when it ought to have been light and creamy.

Other starters seemed to be more crowd-pleasing than especially good. The Ping's Wings ($4.50) are deep-fried and covered in brown sauce like sort of Asian buffalo wings. The Pot Stickers ($4.95) were good, though the sauce was uninspired; and the Pop Chicken, ginger-marinated chicken deep fried in tinfoil ($4.95), was quite nice, a spicy morsel with a nice fresh-ginger kick. I've never liked Cheese Puffs ($4.95) but the people I ate with do, and they said they were the best they'd ever had.

My favorite entree was the Peking Duck (for two, $29.95), which was elegantly spare: simply the duck, slowly roasted, the skin micro-thin and paper-crisp, served traditionally with scallions, hoisin sauce, and tortilla-like, rice-flour pancakes. Butterflies made of orange slices and cherry halves decorated the platter, four (four!) duck legs stuck out decoratively, and as our server painted the pancakes with the hoisin, it was really a delightful dish to contemplate. Sadly though, I began to think of things that could have been done better: There could have been cucumbers to bundle into the pancakes with the duck and scallion, the hoisin tasted like it was out of a jar, and the pancakes could have been homemade.

The Orange Chicken ($11.95) was also very good, sweet, hot, and orangey, but missing any kind of delicacy. I looked forward to the poetically named Sea Harvest in a Nest ($17.95), but was disappointed in the combination of shrimp, scallops, chicken, vegetables and cashews that was served in a crispy deep-fried noodle nest--the nest was good, but the rest of the stir-fried items came in this thick, sweet-and-salty brown sauce that plagued the rest of the menu. It was there on the Volcano Scallops ($15.95), which were tenderly cooked, but then saturated with the brown sauce. It was on the dinner buffet in the Chicken with Snow Pea Pods and the Beef with Vegetables, it was in the fried rice, it was in the Beef Lo Mein.

Ping's longtime manager Shari Toliver told me that I made a mistake by not trying the Black Bean Chicken, which is served on a sizzling platter. But I felt like I had seen enough. The food has the sense of being a perfected commodity for a customer base with a well-defined set of needs: the food must be made from top-quality ingredients, cheerfully presented (broccoli all comes carefully arranged, stem down, floret up, like little trees), and of a soothing, hot-dish like consistency, salty, hot, and generously portioned.

In some fundamental way I understand Ping's. It reminds me of the giant-portioned New York Italian restaurants of the '60s, like Mama Leone's, where the spaghetti came sweet and by the gallon, and the garlic bread flowed like water. The aesthetic is nonthreatening and the value is strong (Ping's generous Monday through Friday lunch buffet is $6.95, the Sunday night buffet $10.95), yet the food is in some fundamental way unchallenging and unsatisfying, because it isn't tied to a tradition, a land, a people, or an intellectual idea--it's simply tied to a formula, albeit a successful one. (Ping's delivers throughout an enormous area, from the West Bank through the southernmost parts of Uptown, and it's the best Chinese delivery in many of those areas. All delivery items are discounted 20 percent.)

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