Pot of Gold

Rainbow Chinese Restaurant and Bar
2739 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; 870-7084.

The kitchen at Rainbow is arranged in a C shape around the inferno of Tammy Wong's woks. These are carbon-steel bowls ranging from the size of a large pizza to the size of a small car's hood, and they sit in circles suspended over gas jets that aim in dozens of directions to emulate the randomness of fire. When Wong turns a knob they erupt with a roar into two-foot flames. Like a lion tamer, a tightrope walker, or some other daredevil, Wong doesn't think anything of working 12-hour shifts among these spitting volcanoes; if anything, she's incredulous people don't understand why her food is so good. Are they equally surprised when they can't boil water over a tea light?

Around the periphery of Wong's space are arrayed more soothing sights. A far-off cooler looks like a small marsh, packed as it is with bunches of well-washed, glistening scallions standing bolt-upright. Beside them are firm, opalescent puddings the size of car tires, the bases for fried rice and turnip cakes. Even the pink pile of plucked ducks looks peaceful and calm, like a mound of flower petals--never mind the detached, orange-billed heads.

At the very front of the kitchen, just on the other side of the door from the new stone-tiled bar that fronts Rainbow's freshly renovated space, sits the sweetest thing I've ever seen in a professional kitchen--a Curious George anthology speckled with food stains. For the kitchen at Rainbow isn't just where food comes from. It's the epicenter of life for the Wong family, where three generations work together to create a community oasis.

The Wong sisters--Tammy, Fong, Trinh, Nina, and Daisy--run the restaurant started by their parents. In a recent interview, Tammy, Fong, and Trinh explained that their goal has always remained the same: to provide a community center predicated on great food. "We want to have a comfortable space for everybody," says Fong. "We're proud that our customers come back again and again. They've seen us grow up. They're proud of us." Trinh nods, and adds, "But we're also proud that we provide good food at a cheap price for the people who live here. We haven't raised our prices on our fried rice for four years. People who live here all know they can come in anytime and get nutritious, good-tasting food for not too much money."

Trinh supervised the renovation of the old furniture warehouse that serves as Rainbow's new home, and while she's delighted with the positive reception for the new space--replete with a watercolor-like mural and full bar--she's both flattered and horrified that customers now must wait half an hour on weekends for a table. "It fills you with humility, we're so grateful, when people say, 'Yes, we'll wait for you,'" Trinh says. "But lately it's so busy that we can't visit as much with customers as we like, and we miss that."

Somewhat uneasy with their success, the Wong sisters struggle with affordably serving their working-class neighbors while keeping the menu exciting for the free-spending gourmet devotees who journey in from around the state. "We're interested in feeding a community, not in making the big bucks," says Fong, juggling her new baby, Han, on one arm. "We've had lots of offers to move to Wayzata and expand, but we don't want to get so big that what we started with gets lost."

They didn't start with much: just a quiet restaurant in a Nicollet Avenue strip mall separated from the city by the I-35W noise walls to the east and K-Mart to the south. But word of their spicy Szechuan wontons and bright noodle soups spread, and now they're one of the most beloved restaurants in town.

In a moment of reflection, the Wong sisters rhapsodize over their ideal restaurant--one where Asian families of all income levels, neighborhood Latinos, and foodie fans all get exactly what they want. But while imagining this perfect world, they also hash over the evidence that they're falling short of some goals--how weekend waits for a table can top an hour, how they no longer have time to circulate through the dining room to greet old customers and meet new ones.

Not that this has affected the food, which seems to be even better than it was in the old location. Some options, like the China Town Ribs ($4.95), meaty slow-roasted ribs sticky with a sweet plum sauce, or the colorful and tender eggplant with garlic sauce ($6.75), are among the best dishes available in the Twin Cities at any price. Those ribs, roasted on the premises with Tammy Wong's own sauce, are as high-quality and meaty as the ones you'll find at an upscale eatery like Cafe 128. Slow-roasted with the sweet, pungent flavors of dried plums and soy, and with a whisper of anise, they become so intensely flavored that after one or two you feel as satisfied as though you'd eaten a whole rack.

That long, narrow, lavender Japanese eggplant is so rapidly seared by Tammy Wong's inferno that it is as soft and juicy as could be without becoming oily, and the dressing of garlic, tawny soy, and sweet squares of red pepper make the dish positively sing. (Tammy prides herself on her collection of imported soy sauces--in Asia there are as many sorts of soy sauce as we have wine vinegars--ranging from thick and aged, like balsamic vinegar, to light and sprightly, like champagne vinegar.)

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