Rainbow Chinese is getting an amazing menu refresh

Fried bao with tamarind braised beef

Fried bao with tamarind braised beef

Tammy Wong's family can't go out to eat anywhere in the Twin Cities for Asian food and be happy. Having run restaurants for more than 30 years, she and her sisters have developed amazingly discerning palates. 

"They all say, let's just stay here and eat."

"Here" being Rainbow Chinese, which has long reigned supreme as the high temple of Chinese cuisine in the Twin Cities. But palates and tastes change, and while Rainbow has been one of the true warhorses in Twin Cities restaurant history, it's finally come time for a re-do. 

But it's touchy. Wong has clientele who have been with her since the first shrimp was wok'd, and they're not about to see their old favorite dishes go away, things like moo shu pork, honey walnut shrimp, and chicken chow fun. Compounding this, in case you haven't heard, there is a nationwide culinary staff shortage, and Rainbow, like most local places, is not immune to those woes. If she's going to turn her menu, she's personally got a lot of work to do. 

Still, Wong wanted to start serving the sorts of cuisine that she and her sisters like to eat when they are finished with their long and rigorous days of cooking for the public. So she's starting menu change phase I with a new happy hour menu, composed of some of the all-time favorite hits from her family's sit-downs. The menu will rotate, because Wong haunts the farmers markets every single day, and she cooks seasonally. 

We got a sneak peek of the menu, and all we can say is that if you're a lover of Chinese food, you better get over to Rainbow post-haste, because nobody is doing this around town, this way, right now.

Chicken lemongrass meatballs with toasted rice, lemongrass and pickled onions

Chicken lemongrass meatballs with toasted rice, lemongrass and pickled onions

Incredulously, each dish is only $6 apiece at happy hour. There are few better deals to be had in town. 

Maybe it's the time-consuming nature of dumplings that makes us love them the way we do, but when presented with meats wrapped in dough and cooked lovingly in bite-sized pieces, the whole of it is like mother love. Wong was unsure about putting these on the menu thanks to their prolonged preparation, but the chef has never been one to shrink from a challenge. These chicken and chive dumplings in an exquisite rice vinegar and ginger sauce are one of the most craveable bites I've had all year. Getting these at this price is like robbing your own grandmother blind. And if that's the case, why does it feel so good? 

At too many places, a meatball is a throwaway item. Not here. Redolent of lemongrass, fish sauce, and toasted rice, these are a one-two punch of funk, acidity, bite, and brine, thanks to the pickled onions and radish as a base. 

Wong's favorite thing in the world to eat, a properly made papaya salad, is a wily beast indeed, too often pre-made and then relegated to suffer in a sad heap of sog. Wong's is made properly to order. I can't decide which part was better, the salad or the best-in-town accompanying egg roll, all garnished with a confetti of crushed peanuts. That the whole of this dish costs little more than a latte has me in little hysterics of joy. And it should you, too.

Small but mighty, this is a dish you may think you've seen before. You haven't. That little skewer of shrimp packs such an enormous wollop of chile fire, you'll be leaping out of your seat flagging down strangers for any liquid they may have on hand. Luckily, it nestles against a drift of cooling, sweet-as-candy mango salad that's complex, herbaceous, and itself a bit fiery. Wong has purposefully left prodigious amounts of chile in these dishes, not tamping them down at all for Minnesota palates. Remember, this is the way she herself likes to eat, so deal with it. 

Regular old bao being elusive as it is, at Rainbow they're dropping them into a deep fryer for something altogether new and sort of life-changingly awesome. They're beautiful, textural, and stuffed with tamarind braised beef and Asian slaw seasoned with lemon, ginger, and white vinegar. You ain't never had a slider quite like this one. 

Other, not pictured new menu items: wok-seared curry cauliflower, taro chips and tamarind salsa, market pickle plate, and a farmers market salad made up of whatever bounty Wong has scooped up that day. 

They're also putting out a full roster of brand new craft cocktails, $3 select cider and beer, and $6 wines. Happy hour service of the new menu begins Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to close, daily. 

$6 Cocktails: 

Rainbow Martini: House infused ginger vodka

Chungking Express: Rum, pineapple, grand marnier, orange bitters

Song for Mona: Plum lemon spritzer

Eu-k's mysterious antidote: Jazzberry mojito

Colorless sky: Whiskey ginger-ale with a splash of apple cider.

Rainbow Restaurant 

2739 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis