Pot of Gold

Charissa Uemura

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.)

One of the nicest things about Rainbow is how they work to make unglamorous dishes perfect. The Moo-Shu Pork ($8.25) is studded with pricey slivers of spicy shiitake mushrooms, which give a well-balanced bottom to the sweetness of the pork and the lightness of the Napa cabbage and airy bamboo shoots. I've never had a better version of this dish, which is so often a goopy, oily mess. The sesame noodles ($4.95), when served warm, are made with short, fat rice noodles that showcase the bright ginger-sesame dressing; the dry sautéed green beans--spectacularly dressed with sour shreds of preserved cabbage and garlic--are so adroitly cooked that they get a meaty bite around their still-crunchy middles. And don't miss the wontons, filled with a ginger-laced pork mixture and made with a melting, pillowy wrapper.

On the other hand, you can trust the Wong family enough to venture into uncharted territory, as I did when I shared a family-size portion of fish-ball and seaweed soup with some wary companions, who pointed out that the clear bowl with fuzzy clumps of seaweed floating around looked a lot like a tidal pool. The white and black pepper in the fish balls (like meatballs, but made of boneless white fish) balanced so pleasantly the scent of lemon in the broth and the iron-tinged seaweed that in an instant the dish went from threateningly novel to cozily nouvelle.

Similarly, I first tried Rainbow's pickled mustard greens two years ago, and since then I've become an impassioned fan of the sparkly-sour greens that the sisters' mother--respectfully referred to only as Mrs. Wong--pickles on the premises. I especially like them tossed with cross-hatched tubes of sweet blanched squid and the tender brown caps of tree mushrooms ($11.25). Follow a meal of such stimulating flavors with an elegant martini glass of green-tea ice cream scattered with honey-roasted walnuts, and it's easy to see why Rainbow has such fiercely passionate fans--and why those fans are willing to ignore any growing pains.

For there are some problems at Rainbow these days, though it feels mean-spirited to mention them: Clearly the sisters are trying very hard and succeeding mightily. However, in trying to be all things to all people, the service on the high end falls off. If you're simply getting two cups of wonton soup and splitting an order of eggplant with garlic sauce, you'll be getting a fabulous dinner for two in a pretty setting for a grand total of about $13 with tip, and will thus feel like you're getting away with murder. However, once you add in all the goodies--with appetizers, wine, beer or cocktails, an entrée for each diner, and dessert, prices can easily reach $30 per person--the slapdash service starts to become quite irritating.

The whole restaurant teams up to deliver food and drinks to your table, and while this ensures that food is delivered piping hot, this it-takes-a-village approach also leads to such diffusion of the chain of command that you're never sure who is supposed to be attending to your minor needs--your water glass, tea pot, wish for new drinks, desire to have empty plates cleared. I spread out my three visits over the course of a couple of weeks, hoping that the chaotic service would go away or reveal itself not to be a problem during off hours, but that didn't happen. It was usual to get appetizers and main courses at the same time (though soups come reliably early). Water glasses remained empty while drink orders went unfilled, and desserts had to be demanded because servers would tend to drop the check prematurely. As much as I adore Rainbow's food, I have to admit I wouldn't go there with someone I wasn't utterly comfortable with--no first dates, no business dinners.

On the other hand, I wouldn't go to Goodfellow's and expect to be well fed for $7 a head. Between Rainbow's elegant new space and excellent food, the Wong sisters are accomplishing exactly what they aimed for--feeding the hearts and palates of a doting community.

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Rainbow Chinese Restaurant & Bar

2739 Nicollet Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408


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