Jumbo JunBo

If you love dumplings, consider yourself delighted

JunBo Chinese Restaurant
7717 Nicollet Ave., Richfield

Fights about which is the best Chinese restaurant in the Twin Cities rage every day upon local Rollerblades and on local internet message boards, and while I'm rather agnostic on the answer, I do find that many people, when defending your bad experience at their favorite, will say, "You have to go there with an Asian person." A statement that makes my blood boil. Can you imagine the opposite? If someone were to casually say, "Oh yeah, if black people want good food at Chez McSnazzy's, they have to bring a white person so the restaurant owners know they're serious."

Sure, I understand that Asian restaurateurs often find themselves presenting pearls before swine; I even understand that there's a fuzzy kind of cultural imperialism/soft racism imposed by gringos demanding lemon-sauce chicken breasts while snickering at scary-sounding stuff like fish maws. But still, things are tough all over. I have a whole bin full of hate mail from readers angry that I use too many big words. Hot dogs are thus called because of Americans' fear and suspicion of what German immigrants were actually mincing up to stuff inside those casings. Everybody must get stoned. All that jazz. I mean, so you're going to open a Chinese restaurant in the land of the mashed potato eaters—if you prick us do we not bleed?

Meals on wheels: JunBo serves up splendid, authentic dim sum
Jana Freiband
Meals on wheels: JunBo serves up splendid, authentic dim sum

Okay, you get the point. But I say all of this to preface how delirious with joy, how truly thrilled, how utterly over the moon I was the third time a circling server asked me if I wanted chicken feet last Sunday morning at JunBo, Minnesota's newest and biggest Cantonese restaurant and dim sum palace. "Me?" I stammered, blushing. "You want to know if I want chicken feet? Little old me?" I then twirled my parasol and fluttered my lace fan for a few minutes before returning to demolishing shrimp and cilantro dumplings with the delicacy and comportment of Cookie Monster. But, you know, the feeling lingered all day. "They offered me chicken feet, they must really think I'm something special..."

Anyway: JunBo. Rhymes with jumbo, which is helpful because it's simply gigantic. The place occupies the old Chi Chi's space on Nicollet just north of Interstate 494, has two vast dining rooms and one full bar in which one could comfortably seat 400, and offers more free parking than you can find at most county fairs. Through these vast fields dim sum carts wheel each and every day, carts innumerable packed with dishes uncountable. Or, it seems that way anyway, as the bounty descends.

Bounty such as bowls of whole Manila clams, steamed till their brown shells fan open, then drizzled with perky black-bean sauce. Bitter melon fritters, bright as green apples, their cheerful exteriors tearing away to reveal a pepper-gray pureed center. Soy-marinated beef, thinly sliced, dressed with rice vinegar and served chilled, resting on a bed of sweet carrot and daikon pickles. Dumplings of astounding variety, including those made from chopped shrimp and broad leaves of bright cilantro; others made with pork, boiled peanuts, dried shrimp, and finely diced water chestnut; chicken and watercress; minced fish, shrimp, and onion; little darling har gao, made of bright sweet shrimp and shaped in tiny flower-like bites; ground pork dumplings tucked into egg wrappers and topped with bright orange fish eggs; giant shrimp topped with carefully crosscut scallops steamed till they are as pale and delicate as clouds; and more.

Jungle-dusky packets of sticky rice and pork steamed in banana leaves. Shrimp paste shaped into long ribbons and fried until crisp, chewy, and almost jerky-like. Rice noodles folded around bitter melon, shrimp, or a beef filling that tasted as if the meat had been long braised and then blended with licorice-like herbs. Bright plates of gai lan, the Chinese broccoli served as crisp as crunch. Egg rolls as thin as magic wands, filled with long strips of greens and little morsels of pork.

And then, of course, there are the dozens of classics, including pork buns, congee, tripe, pork ribs, custard tarts, crab-claw balls, turnip cakes, mango pudding that tastes like jelly beans, coconut pudding that tastes like silken sugar, homemade tofu served in a sugar syrup, and more, more, more. (The dim sum rolls from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., but is also available from an à la carte menu; please note that the restaurant is open every single day, from 11:00 a.m. till 1:00 a.m. usually, and to a gleefully hangover-preventing 3:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)

If you care about dim sum or Cantonese food you simply have to give JunBo a whirl. And if you're a know-it-all who's sitting there grumbling, "If they do all that, they can't do it all well," I have news for you—they can. JunBo did some jumbo hiring before opening this past May, and recruited four, count 'em four, head chefs from various corners of the continent: San Francisco's, Vancouver's, and Washington, D.C.'s recent losses are all Minnesota's gains. Does that seem like a risky venture, staking all that space and money on a belief that Minnesotans are ready for all the scallop-topped dumplings we can eat?

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