An Ode to the Humble Har Gow
My Le Hoa
2900 Rice St., Little Canada; 484-5353
The first time I had dim sum it was in the company of the very cute, very bad Vivian Y. She was an angel-faced, teeny-tiny Chinese girl who could get away with anything because of her gorgeous little heart-shaped face and her rippling little-girl giggle. Mainly she liked to get away with stealing dim sum--she had staked out which restaurants in Chinatown charged by counting up the plates left on the table at the end of the meal, and as she dined she would slip every other plate into some secret spot on her diminutive person, so that when the time came to settle up, the bill was far too low. I was her frightened, awe-struck, and grateful accomplice one Sunday morning back in high school, and maybe that's why, even today, I get a little thrill every time a tiny steam tray of har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) are placed on the table. Or it could just be because they're delectable little morsels of heaven.
Dim sum, a celebratory southern Chinese brunch (which translates literally as "dot heart" and poetically as "heart's delight") is a meal made up of as many little appetizer-sized portions of hard-to-make dishes as you care to order. It is traditionally served from rolling carts especially equipped for their particular dish: Some have hot platforms on which to fry noodles, others have fry baskets, the rest are simply carts. The best dim sum I've found in Minnesota is at My Le Hoa (pronounced May Lee Wah) in an unlikely strip mall in Little Canada. (Little Canada's not as far away as it sounds: In traffic-free hours it's about five minutes from the state Capitol on Rice Street, or about 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis via Highway 36.)
Dim Sum at My Le Hoa (weekends from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) is a bustling, treat-filled affair. Carts course down the wide aisles between tables, there's lots of laughing, pointing, and shouting, and all of the servers speak enough English to explain what exactly everything is (another benefit to living in the Midwest; just try to figure out what a mystery dish is in San Francisco sometime, I dare you). Standards like the fun noodles (a soft rice noodle) are fresh and tender, served like a crepe around a lightly seasoned filling of beef or shrimp; steamed pork-buns are just out of the steamer and piping hot; and lightly sautéed broccoli rabe is crisp and light. A world of dumplings is available, such as the aforementioned har gow, here undecorated but still delicious; sturdy little pork dumplings; shark-fin dumplings, which are pork dressed up with nearly undetectable shark-fin cartilage; and quail-egg dumplings, which are pork dumplings topped with a tough little quail egg ($2.75). A surprise favorite was five-spice quail, tender, tiny, dark brown, crisp-lacquered birds that smelled of star anise and reminded me of cherries, not because they tasted like cherries but because they had such an intense, unique flavor. My one real disappointment at My Le Hoa was the pot stickers--their version is bland and underwhelming. It's hard to say what individual dishes cost at this dim-sum brunch, since prices are tallied by stamping or writing characters on a card (aspiring high-school stickyfingers begone), but you can eat well for $10 a person. Dim sum is perfect for parties of four or more; that way you can try more dishes, and parties of eight or so get a big round table with a huge lazy susan in the middle, which is fun.
Opened nearly seven years ago by Muoi and Du Nguyen, a Chinese couple who came here via Vietnam, My Le Hoa also does great lunches and dinners. The copious menu (nearly 200 items) offers both American standards like moo shu pork and Chinese favorites like salt-and-pepper shrimp, and the incredible thing is that they manage to do them both well. The moo-shu dishes are full of crisp veggies and strips of wood ears, straw mushrooms, and oyster mushrooms; the salt-and-pepper shrimp ($10.50) are crisp and delicate as wafers of ice, and are cooked to tender perfection. The barbecued duck is a powerful thing: rich with fermented black beans, fragrant, redolent of anise, and smoldering with an intensely rich smokiness. It's one of the best things I've had in a very long time, and would be at home at any downtown Euro-mural-haven, at double the price ($9.50 half, $18 whole). The honey-garlic spare ribs are also excellent: A crisp crust divides the tender meat from the sweet, spicy sauce ($7.50).
Fresh seafood is a specialty of the house. The delicious steamed walleye with oyster sauce is an exquisite presentation of a whole fish garnished with daikon roses; I was particularly impressed when our waiter deboned and served the fish using only two spoons. Specials change nightly and are often terrific; I recently enjoyed steamed scallops served on creamy squares of fresh, sweet tofu, topped with black-bean sauce and amply dressed with cilantro ($10.95). (The one trick in going to My Le Hoa for dinner is to always call in advance--it's a wildly popular site for Asian wedding banquets, and if the banquet is big enough they shut down the whole restaurant.)
Vivian and I parted ways by our sophomore year in high school, and I'm sure I haven't thought of her until I started this article, and tried to remember when my love affair with har gow began--but wherever she is, undoubtedly she's got a world of exquisite dumplings at her feet. Now the rest of us can too.
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