Asian Stars Du Nord

Two fascinating Asian restaurants, one Korean, one Taiwanese, bloom in the northern suburbs

Dong Yang Oriental Food
735 45th Ave. NE, Hilltop
(Central Plaza Mall)
763.571.2009

E-Noodle Café
1711 Rice St., Roseville
(McCarron Hills Shopping Center)
651.488.1246

You, you might say that the thing most likely to get you in trouble is that floozy in the rhododendrons, but for me, what nearly killed me last month was theories.

I wish you'd been there. Instead of me, I mean. I'd been hitting the highways and byways, pursuing a "theory." Namely, that in Minnesota Asian restaurants, the new wave of great food would be found in direct proportion to the utter ugliness of the architecture and to the absolute inconvenience of the location.

I don't want to get too dramatic here, but let's just say it was a month marked most memorably by police photos of myself on various highway median strips shotgunning ampoules of bicarbonate of soda, weeping.

But then the tide turned! It turned, and I found two exciting new spots, one Korean, one Taiwanese, in the far-flung strip malls of the north. And it made all those moments with the various Empress Princess Red Garden Palace Cottages well worth it.

Dong Yang is the one that almost killed me. It is just such a jaw-dropper of a great find. Dong Yang, you see, is a lovely little Korean grocery store up on 45th and Central avenues in Hilltop. (If you've never heard of Hilltop, that's because it's about the size of an anorexic ant, if such a thing were wedged in the brief space between Columbia Heights and Fridley.)

At first, Dong Yang struck me mostly as a great chef's resource. In addition to a copious noodle selection, they've got a butcher shop, all those addictive Korean bar snacks, and half a dozen unusual Asian sea salts, including a fire-roasted salt. Yet, the grocery is just the tip of the iceberg. In an unmarked back room, just past the vegetable cooler, with nothing to announce it but the noise of a Korean-language satellite TV station, Dong Yang shows its greatest asset: a fantastic Korean lunch room.

Admittedly, there's nothing much in this room, room-wise: A dozen tables, the television, walls made of cement blocks, a water cooler, and a tea-warmer surrounded by Styrofoam cups. It seems more like a workplace break room than a restaurant. Except this break room is stocked with food created by talented Korean moms and grandmas, and if you give them 10 bucks, they will give you all of the jewels a hard-working member of the family deserves.

Ask for the ka ji mee ($8.99) and you'll get two tender, salted, grilled fishes, golden as Bing Crosby, yet far, far more moist. I joke, but this ka ji mee was delectable, the flesh flaking from the bones like--well, like one of those things you would pray for from a fish dinner, if it was moral to pray for a fish dinner. You know how it is, with food-types making such a big deal about the ability of French chefs to get that thick, golden crisp crust on a piece of pan-fried fish? Well, another way to get it is just to show up at Dong Yang with nine bucks.

Another triumph, the gal bi, is thinly sliced pieces of beef short rib, as flavor-saturated as jerky, as chewy and luxurious as thick-cut bacon, grilled till they pop with beefy flavor.

I realize I don't say a lot in this column about where to dine solo: If you're a sportsy Northeast guy with a secret gourmet side, if you're a hipster chick with a carnivorous streak, there is no better place in town to splay out under a baseball cap in your glasses than Dong Yang.

Part of the charm is that everything at Dong Yang comes with a bowl of rice and five little dishes of pan chan--the Korean relishes, salads, and pickles that elevate the meal. Depending on the day, you yourself might get big chunks of potato dressed with chile, or sweet fried slices of tofu, or crisp marinated bean sprouts, garlic shoots in vinegar and chile, sweet dressed black beans, wilted spinach with sesame seeds, cucumbers in vinegar, pickled daikon, or simply house-made kimchi, that Korean chile-laced fresh sauerkraut. Whichever you get, the deal is, you decorate your main protein and your rice with alternating bites of the various garnishes to keep things interesting throughout.

Various kitchens and various families have various styles of handing out pan chan; some Korean chefs spend all day working on one little thing, and you're lucky that they give you a few of their hard-won morsels. Not so at Dong Yang, where things tend to be more in the soul food, have-more, you're-working-yourself-to-the-bone frame of mind. For all of those who never feel like you have enough pan chan: Achtung--now you will.

Another must-have is the man doo, those plump meat-and-noodle stuffed dumplings. Here, they're tender and sweet, vibrating with the light energy of carrots and other tender root vegetables. The seafood pancake ($8.99) feeds two and is bursting with octopus, bay shrimp, scallions, and the pillowy weight of eggs. The bul go gi, thinly sliced pork or beef (your choice) in chile sauce was pretty darn fiery for my taste, but, still, you'd have to have a hard heart not to officially name Dong Yang one of the hidden treasures of food-life in Minnesota.

Why the high praise? The food, certainly, which is made with the assurance and confidence that only comes with cooking something for 30 years. One day I watched a tiny, tiny cook in a pink Yves Saint Laurent T-shirt and tennies pour a good four pounds of seafood pancake into a two-pound pan, shifting it all, straight armed, with a light wrist, like she was merely waving a handkerchief at the stove's flames.

That was impressive, but as much as the food, Dong Yang, to me, communicates a sense that, as a restaurant, this is a brief phenomenon and a privilege. I get the sense that this little grocery-cum-lunchroom embodies the briefest of immigrant experiences in Minnesota, that sometime 40 years ago you could have walked into a Swedish kitchen someplace in Nordeast and paid a pittance for sausages and potatoes, and that soon thereafter all the Swedish children became teachers, social workers, or engineers, and lofted Mom out of working for a living. I bet that will apply to the women of Dong Yang in the briefest moment, history-wise. And then they'll only cook for their real families. For the glorious meantime, though, the rest of us can venture in there, and, if we're nice, get to play.

And I do mean if we're nice. The counter-service-only restaurant stops taking orders at 7:30 at night, and if you are there at 7:36, you better be prepared to offer to shovel walks next winter if you want dinner. Frankly, though, I think it would be worth it.

If you're too shy to ask the moms at the counter what's good, please know that the menu is partly on a piece of paper stuck in a Lucite frame on the countertop, and partly made up of brightly colored pieces of paper stuck on the wall above the ordering window. That's where you'll find all kinds of hot-pot soups, squid specials of the day, and such. But there will always be that (write it down!) ka ji mee fish, those gal bi short ribs, those delectable man doo dumplings, as well as kim bop, sushi-roll like appetizers filled with pickles and sweet pork. (This may be a little too much of an insider's reference, but if anyone remembers that first incarnation of Quang, when it was a tiny hole-in-the-wall in that strip mall, Dong Yang reminds me very much of that: careful home cooking for anyone with enough sense to appreciate it.)

Meanwhile, a few miles to the east, on Rice Street just north of Larpenteur, in the exotic land where Falcon Heights, Maplewood, Little Canada, and Roseville meet St. Paul, I found a--Hey! Quit making faces! What do you mean the corner of Larpenteur and Rice is not an exotic land?

You only say that because you haven't seen E-Noodles' Taiwanese QQ noodle soup with red garlic, pale sliced pork, fish and squid balls, and two, count them, two, kinds of gelatinous noodles with chewy, squishy textures. And I am telling you frankly, one of these noodles is clear and it glistens. Exotic. Don't tell me what's not exotic.

These QQ noodles are a part of E-Noodles' strongest suit, their soups. My favorite is their Taiwanese beef noodle soup ($5.75), a giant bowl of wheat noodles in a curry-tinged broth topped with spinach, halved grape tomatoes, marinated, grilled slices of beef, and wee little rectangles of tangy pressed bean curd. It's got a wintry, deep, dusky, jungle-by-the-sea aspect to it that's utterly memorable. Just when you think you've mastered massive Asian beef soups with all the pho you've been eating--voilà, something utterly surprising.

Japanese udon noodles with salmon ($5.95) is another soup to try. Here you get a long plank of fried teriyaki salmon resting atop a big bowl of thick, chewy udon noodles interspersed with various sorts of fish and crab cakes, wisps of seaweed, fresh string beans, and a couple of fried squares of tofu. It's light and simple, adeptly done and incredibly filling.

The little spic-and-span storefront also sells rice bowls, which might be the best dead-cheap food in town: Order the sesame tofu for $4.99 and you'll first receive a cup of nicely powerful hot-and-sour soup, brimming with all the tasty, expensive, and too often forgotten mushrooms that perfect the dish. Then, then you'll get a big bowl of rice covered with crisp squares of tofu, slices of carrot, and fresh button mushrooms, all of which are united in a sweet, tasty sesame sauce.

Likewise, Japanese pork chops ($5.25) are a bargain hunter's and/or global fast-food connoisseur's dream come true. Try these and you get a cup of that hot-and-sour soup and a rice bowl topped with fresh veggies, crowned with two golden pork cutlets, each pounded thin, panko-breaded, fried till they're crisp as a crunch, and gilded with a sweet dollop of teriyaki sauce--yum. If you're just back from a term abroad in Tokyo but still paying for the plane ticket, welcome to your new favorite restaurant.

I wasn't too crazy about the Korean dishes that I tried at E-Noodle, they tend to have one note of either salty or spicy, and I didn't try the range of standard American Chinese takeout that the place offers, like lemon chicken, but I think you'll be pretty happy with anything on the menu that's labeled Taiwanese or Japanese. There are bubble-teas and dishes of flavored shaved ice for dessert; I am a big fan of the lychee shaved ice, in which canned lychees in syrup are drizzled with condensed milk (it's available in a cup for $2.25 or a bowl for $2.95). Are you bored with slushees? Not anymore, you aren't.

As an added bonus, the family that runs E-Noodle is friendly, eager, sweet, and helpful. The dad wears this cute apron hand-decorated with puffy paint, the mom gets tongue-tied trying to explain the complex range of ingredients that make every dish, the little boy presses his nose against the front glass and looks outside at the trucks.

What does he think about the trucks? Hard to say, but I'd bet money his head is filled with life's most dangerous component: theories. I can only wish that his theories are as productive as mine have been. Because I really did find that there is some cheap, fascinating, delicious food to be had in the least auspicious-looking strip malls of the north, if only you believe, if only you persevere.

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