Roseville's China Jen is an old-school adventure

2193 Snelling Ave., Roseville

Word on the street is that there's a humble little Chinese place in Roseville that has soup dumplings. There's no shame in not knowing what a soup dumpling is; while they may have Chinese roots, they're best known as a respected bit player on the roster of New York City's most wonderful cheap eats.

So it was disappointing to arrive at China Jen, request soup dumplings, and be met by total mystification. And then to be told that they don't have any regular dumplings left, all they have are something called "pork bao" ($4.80).

Which turn out to be soup dumplings. And good ones at that. Each steamed, pot-sticker-like dumpling wrapper packs a mild, tender little pork meatball, swimming in a scant tablespoon of broth inside. If you want to avoid soup dumpage, tip the dumpling to a 45-degree angle, nibble off the edge, and slurp down the broth before biting into the delicate interior. It's Flushing, Queens, in a hot little package.

If you're willing to make the drive for dumplings, be informed: The place has as many rough edges as it does items in its phone-book-like menu. While you dine, you may be treated to a full-volume screening of Whacked Out Videos featuring an old woman shooting a semi-automatic weapon, men who get turned on by inflated balloons, and a kid breaking a light bulb over his head. Coca-Cola from the fountain was heavy on the fizz, light on the syrup. An order of scallion pancakes ($2.90) was desert-dry and sadly lacking a bold flavor counterpoint (such as hoisin sauce or pork) to perk up its doughy, dour character.

Here's the flip side: For $5.90, you can get a kung pao chicken combination, including an ordinary-looking but well-executed egg roll and non-greasy fried rice. If you're an average eater with a flexible conscience, you can split this between two people and eat dinner for $3. Moreover, it's a dinner you'll enjoy. The kung pao's balance between sweet and spicy is spot-on; it's neither too syrupy nor too bland. It has a burst of warm, deeply spiced flavor that makes this a skillful execution of a mom-and-pop Chinese food classic.

Chicken satay ($7.90) isn't executed at a ready-for-Bangkok level, but it's mild and pleasing, and it boasts that sure sign that this isn't phoned-in Chinese cuisine: Its vegetables are crisp and snappy, prepared with pride and talent.

Humble and rough-hewn though it may be, there's something reassuring about going out for good old-school Chinese food and having it executed with style. And if soup dumplings are in the mix? Well, that's an adventure.

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