Cream cheese wontons are proudly inauthentic, born of Chinese wonton skins and wrapping techniques and middle-American fried cheese lust. Sister to the crab rangoon, cousin of jalapeño poppers and cheesecake bites, cream cheese wontons—aka fried wontons, aka cream cheese puffs—are well-established in the kitsch food family.
As long as you’re in Minnesota, anyway. Folks elsewhere in the U.S. have no clue what they are.
Nearly everywhere else in the country, you’ll find their closest relative—the crab rangoon—something that esteemed San Francisco-based cookbook writer Andrea Nguyen recently noted when she visited the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“Andrea came in and asked me why I have the wontons with cheese on the menu, and I told her it’s just a Chinese-American classic—a guilty pleasure, secret trashy delight that I love to eat,” Hai Hai chef Chrisitina Nyguen explains. “‘Did you know it is not a thing around the country?’ she told me. I had no idea! I never realized that I hadn’t seen them outside the Midwest.”
Slap an unidentified deep-fried wonton in front of a person, and within the first few bites you’ll be able to tell where they’re from. A Minnesotan confronted with a crab rangoon will gasp, “Ugh, this has crab in it.” Those from the coasts, presented with a cream cheese wonton, will feel slighted: “This is just cheese? What the hell?” Even elsewhere in the Midwest—Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit—the rangoon is the go-to.
Crab rangoons occasionally appear on local menus, but even when they do, they aren’t the main attraction. And if wontons include anything besides the classic cheese, it’s noted to prevent grumpy customers.
Could a case be made, then, for cream cheese wontons as the quintessential Minnesota food?
Consider this: Hot dish shouldn’t count because you mainly make it at home, and Minnesotans don’t invite strangers over. Besides, a truly iconic hometown dish should be something that can be bought in company and scarfed on the street or in a car/bus/park—not a platter of walleye. Atlanta has lemon pepper wings; Philly has the cheesesteak; NYC has its floppy pizza slices.
There’s the Juicy Lucy, of course, but you’ll find wontons on a whole lot more menus throughout Minnesota. They have the incredible culinary flexibility of fried chicken wings, the portability of L.A. street tacos, the ubiquity of a Chicago dog. They can be paired with just about anything, or enjoyed solo in all of their beige glory.
While crab rangoons are thought to have originated at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco, it’s long been rumored that cream cheese wontons were actually invented here in Minnesota by none other than Leeann Chin.
The first cream cheese wonton reference we could find was in a 1985 edition of the Star Tribune, in a coupon for two free wontons with a takeout order from a now-defunct mom-and-pop place. Wontons seem to have gained popularity in buffets before making the leap to takeout menus and finally to fast food. (Leeann Chin’s corporate reps confirmed that they are the creators of the cream cheese wonton under the name “cream cheese puffs” but refused to provide further details.)
They’ve since become a staple of takeout menus and buffet steam trays, found in all manner of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants—from places that specialize in squeaky styrofoam-box takeout to strip-mall all-you-can-eat joints. At restaurants that focus on takeout and lunch deals, cream cheese wontons have traditionally been the freebie, a thing-on-the-side or fried tidbit that’s always worth the upcharge.
In the early Aughts, the cranberry wontons at Azia were a local hit, named one of the Twin Cities’ all-time best dishes in 2010 by this very publication. Cream cheese wontons have maintained their popularity; a Leeann Chin employee recently told us he makes more than 700 a day for just one of the chain restaurant’s locations.
They’ve also started appearing on menus crafted by chefs who became devotees in their youth. At the elegant new Lat14 in Golden Valley, a cream cheese wonton is provided with each lunch plate, a nod to their placement as an extra in Chinese-American lunch specials.
“It’s the one comforting thing on the plate,” chef Ann Ahmed explains. “It instantly feels comfortable. We’re in the Midwest, people love cheese... there is at least one thing they’ll like.”
Most cream cheese wontons are crafted by hand, and each bears the individual stamp of the restaurant, folded and tucked into unique shapes and pouches. For some, triangle folds are creased into perfect crisp isosceles, a neat appearance that lets the filling hit every bite. The four fold or “beggar’s purse” sees the chef plopping cream cheese in the middle before pushing up all four corners tight, creating a wonton that easily pulls apart with a crunchy handle and a glob of filling on the end—a dip-n-chip all in one. Wontons with envelope folds can be whipped up by employees quickly and simply, creating the style of pocket popularized by Leeann Chin.
“When I was a kid, my mom would make them every once in a while, when we were entertaining,” chef Christina Nguyen says. Hai Hai’s contribution to the cream cheese wonton canon does contain chicken liver pâté, but visually they’re a big wink to the classic iteration: the triangle shape with a bright-orange dipping sauce (though theirs is a tart passion fruit mix instead of thick orange syrup). “It’s a Midwestern classic that I grew up with.”
Chef Jessi Peine of Peeps Hot Box food truck grew up working in a Chinese restaurant, making cream cheese wontons every shift. “When I was creating the menu, I wanted something that massive amounts of people would know and have appeal,” she says. “It’s a naughty junk-food item. Since the food truck is seasonal, people will come by and tell me they waited all winter for the wontons. They kept telling me they were the best wontons ever, so we finally just wrote it on the truck.”
Once you start thinking about cream cheese wontons, you’ll see them everywhere. With a never-ending variety of flavors, they’re as multifaceted and creative as Minnesota’s culinary corners. Camdi, a Vietnamese restaurant on the U of M campus, even has a vegan cream cheese wonton that mirrors the richness and softness of cream cheese with a finely spiced filling. Owners Camdi and Kiet Phan are tight-lipped when questioned about their homemade filling, but proud that vegan customers ask where they can buy the “cheese” in stores. (Sorry, plant-based wonton fans: You can’t).
What may be the pinnacle of wontons can be found at Rainbow Chinese Restaurant and Bar, helmed by chef Tammy Wong, who stresses the amount of care and labor that goes into the seemingly simple dish. “We still wrap each wonton by hand,” she explains. “It is really hard to find someone who is able to wrap them right. Not everyone can.... We had someone, and once they left they were very difficult to replace.”
Wong notes that the dough is very delicate, requiring skilled hands and a chunk of prep time daily. Their preparation needs to be consistent: not too doughy, not too wet, with a good ratio of cheese. (“I wish I could show people how much work goes into something so simple.”) Her care extends to the dipping sauce, which is made from scratch with a base of the vegetables and fruits that are in season: springtime is for carrots, squash and pumpkin follow in autumn, and early summer welcomes a rhubarb sauce, spiked with tangerine peels and garlic, inspired by watching the farmers near her food stall at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.
All this effort pays off in Rainbow producing one of the most refined cream cheese wontons in the Twin Cities—perfectly folded with a thick, uniform filling. Somehow, though most fried things lose their charm once the steam heat dissipates, these wontons remain crunchy. It’s not accidental; it’s Wong’s 15 years of experience on display.
For those who would scoff at wontons’ simplicity, local food writer and prolific Instagram snack documentarian JD Hovland reminds us that there’s very little difference between a cream cheese wonton and brie en crute, a classic upscale French dish of a wedge of soft brie wrapped in puff pastry and baked until golden brown. The real star wontons are those that have been fried to perfection.
When the first bite of a wonton hits, the tongue is overwhelmed by the tastes, both richly fatty and somehow bland—the twin arch flavors of Midwestern food. Quality cream cheese wontons have flavor to their filling, but one that isn’t aggressive, just an enhancement to the richness.
“I really respect a wonton that retains a crunch after it’s refrigerated, and the center stiffens like a cheesecake,” Hovland says. On Instagram, he even tags each type of cream cheese wonton with its own sticker identifying the type of dumpling fold.
So what do we need to do to prove that these are Midwestern, if not Minnesotan to their very core? They’re basically cheese curds with a crunchy shell, and various packed versions can be found in the frozen aisles of Target, Lunds, Cub—all the hometown grocery chains—so people can get their guilty food fix via at-home toaster ovens.
How about their appearance in the culinary juggernaut that is the State Fair? The 2017 fair featured Giggle’s Campfire Grill’s duck bacon wontons, while 2018 had wonton-esque sweet Greek cheese puffs from Dino’s Gyros (going continental with the flavors). We need something beige and lovable, and the cream cheese wonton is precisely that wonder.
Even if finding a single definitive moment in which the cream cheese wonton was birthed in our great state’s borders proves elusive, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. It doesn’t matter where or when you were born, but where and by whom you are loved. And Minnesota’s heart undeniably beats with molten cheese, be it Juicy Lucy or cream cheese wonton.