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?
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?
It seemed risky to me, until I talked to Kee Lo, JunBo's manager, and son of owners Mr. and Mrs. Lo. It turns out that the Lo family has been operating, in Kee Lo's words, "chop-suey style" restaurants in Minnesota for some 30 years, including St. Paul's large South China Island Inn. After all these years of taking the pulse of our local Asian restaurant scene, the Los decided the city was ready for an authentic Chinese dim sum palace.
"Dim sum isn't just for Chinese people," Kee Lo told me. "It's a part of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, and Lao life, too." Aha! And here I thought that southeast Asian restaurants were the main foodie benefit to southeast Asian immigration to Minnesota. On weekends, about one-fourth of diners are non-Asians or Minnesota natives. But I knew that already, because I had seen some, often with a beer in one hand and a toddler in the other, enjoying the bounty of the new.
If you've never done dim sum, here's how it works. You enter the restaurant, you're seated at a table, and your server will ask you if you want something to drink: a beer, a scotch, pop, your choice of a pot of tea for the table, including jasmine, chrysanthemum, subtle white tea, medicinal fermented pu erh tea, and more. Then various stainless steel carts will push up to the table, and either you can all jump up and stare at the piles of little dishes as the server uncovers them to reveal what is inside, or you can designate one of your party to do it for you. Unlike most dim sum restaurants, almost every server I dealt with at JunBo had a good grasp of English and was able to explain, at least in broad strokes, the ingredients on the little covered plates.
Most of the individual dim sum dishes are $3.25 or $3.95, and they tack on a 15 percent gratuity to your check. I was able to eat generously at $12 a person, and the one time I went so absolutely hog-wild bananas that the servers were cautioning us to stop we still came in at $20 a head. (The shu mai, those little shrimp dumplings, were fresh; I had to.) The restaurant also offers two long à la carte menus of non-dim sum dishes, an American chop suey-style menu offering shrimp with lobster sauce and all the golden oldies, and a Chinese menu with a little red mark coloring in the o in JunBo.
Even after a number of visits, I never felt I got a complete sense of the non-dim sum capabilities of the kitchen here, though I did try some very good sweet crispy Peking pork chops ($12.95), and some excellent chow fun (both "dry," from $8.95, sautéed so that the noodles soak up the seasonings, and "with sauce," in a soupy style). Really though, it's hard to focus on the written menu when those dim sum carts come rolling by. And why would you? The cilantro shrimp dumplings in their translucent rice wrappers were as ethereal as blossoms. And if you still can't get over the idea of chicken feet, just know that they're really a compliment, rolling your way.