Spice as Nice
Tea House 2, 1676 Suburban Ave., St. Paul, 651.771.1790, ourteahouse.com
When I first heard that Plymouth's Tea House was opening a second location of their remarkable Sichuan restaurant, this one in St. Paul, I thought: ack. Really? After I just reviewed another new Sichuan restaurant in St. Paul, and another Tea House offshoot at that, just scant months ago? I mean, what's the point? Isn't that like putting scrambled eggs inside your omelet? Like adding a Jessica Simpson to a world already amply supplied with Britney Spears? As unnecessary as two Dakotas? You know what I mean. We're Minnesotans after all, we're a people who know full well that we have 14,000 and some lakes, but just tell people about the first 10,000—a crowded marketplace can be a tedious thing.
But: How wrong I was! This new place is actually a fantastic little restaurant, very different from the first Tea House, very different from Little Szechuan, and distinctly worth the time of any Chinese-food fiend. Or, for that matter, anyone who lives on the east side of St. Paul or in Cottage Grove or Maplewood, or who commutes from St. Paul to Hudson, since the place is feet off I-94 in a strip mall just south of the highway at the White Bear Avenue exit.
In the interest of running things differently this week, I will split this review into recommendations for you takeout warriors, and then for you sit-down connoisseurs. For the takeout kings in the crowd, you need to know that among the many great features of the cuisine of Chengdu (the southwestern Chinese city that is the epicenter of Sichuan food) are its rich street-food scene and its many tea houses for light meals. Consequently, there are a lot of great cold and room-temperature dishes, just what you want for takeout.
The Sichuan cold noodles ($4.95), for instance, are a joy: Thick, wheaty noodles are richly coated with a peanut and chili sauce that's both spicy and nutty, but also savory, slurpable, and a wee bit tangy—they're a must-have, and I can see bringing six orders to the cabin for the weekend. Bon Bon chicken ($7.25) is another gem; here, cold, sliced chicken is dressed in a similar spicy peanut sauce, but once on the chicken, the sauce takes on a mellow radiance. A half of a tea-smoked duck ($11.95) is another takeout possibility—you'll get a duck with intensely crispy skin and meat permeated with a deep bit of spicy smoke that serves to make it sensual and ripe.
Pork and smoked tofu ($9.95) combines thin strips of dark smoked tofu and strips of tender, nubby, deliciously sweet pork; it travels and reheats well, and is as chili-free, bland, and devourable as a pot of Swedish meatballs. The ma po tofu ($8.95), that chili-stewed tofu dish topped with ground pork, is very different at the new Tea House than it is at the other Sichuan spots in town, namely because it's very fierce with the anise-like, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and light on other spices, creating an effect like having a Dremel with a sanding bit buzz around the inside of your mouth, in a good way—if you like that kind of thing, of course. Poured into a takeout container, this ma po tofu will travel hundreds of miles happily, and really spice the bejeezus out of any TV party.
On the other hand, there are ample reasons to dine in at Tea House, not least of which is the elegant room itself—or perhaps I should say the shockingly, jarringly, head-shakingly elegant room, which is all hand-carved wood, blood-red walls, and smartly backlit ornate wooden screens, tucked in the corner of a strip mall that has about as much panache as a runover shoe. Once you're seated on a pretty, hand-carved Chinese chair, be sure to order the restaurant's signature juicy buns ($5.95 pork, $7.95 crab). Where I grew up, we used to call these things "soup dumplings": Each is a dumpling wrapper filled with soup and a ball of dumpling-stuffing, deftly wrapped together and steamed to order. Yes, I am saying these are the Jucy Lucy of Chinese cuisine—if you don't pay close attention when you're eating one, you can squirt hot soup all over yourself. That said, they're well worth the risk: Sticking the hot soup in there gives the dumpling wrapper an uncommon delicacy, and renders the dumpling filling unusually tender, so each one you gobble up is as delicious as childhood Halloween candy memories. Shanghai pancakes ($2.50) make a good pair to the juicy buns: These crisp, scallion-filled, quick-griddled, eggy snacks are a simple, crunchable, everyday Chinese snack that is surprisingly difficult to find done well in Minnesota Chinese restaurants.
One of the most surprising things I found at this new Tea House was that some of the old reliables from the other Tea House aren't here. The dan-dan noodles ($4.95), for instance, are made here with a thinner, less complex sauce that leaves them with a mere two dimensions: hot like fire, wheaty like bread. I say skip them for the far superior Sichuan cold noodle. The cold chili-sauced cucumber ($7.50) and bamboo tips ($6.50) were other disappointments. The first lacked any textural interest; it was merely grainy, cooked, cold cucumber; the second had tinny-tasting bamboo, and both were simply chili-oil dressed.
This new Tea House also has something over the other restaurants; mainly, they hand out a typewritten specials menu in addition to the regular one, and I've had some real gems among the specials. Chengdu sour vermicelli ($4.95) is angel-hair-thin rice noodles served in a vinegar and red-chili-oil broth with your choice of sliced pork, chicken, or pork chitterlings—it's remarkably sour, slurpy, and almost Dorito-like in its overseasoned, you-can't-eat-just-one sort of way. I can, however, eat just one of any of the rabbit nuggets in the restaurant's special of spicy rabbit with peppercorn ($8.95). Now, Sichuan food is renowned for spice, but this stuff is glorious—the ratio of chili pepper to rabbit seems to be about one to one; it starts burning your mouth and quickly ends up igniting a fire that seems to start at your toes and vaporize your whole inside, sending puffs of the former you out your ears. And then, there was the flounder that stole my heart.
It's only on the specials menu, and is called "sautéed filet flounder" ($14.95). (Do not confuse this with pan-fried flounder, $13.95, a totally different, lesser dish.) For this a whole flounder is used, and the fillets are deftly removed from the bones. These fillets are sliced thinly, battered, and fried until they are as light as butterfly kisses. They are then tossed with fresh asparagus, thin fluted carrot cuts, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and sections of baby corn in a gossamer and fresh composition. Finally, all of this is turned into a bowl made of the flounder itself—that is, the skeleton and skin of the flounder is breaded and fried until it's as crisp as a potato chip (but full of far more calcium!) and as concave as a bowl. Yes, I'm talking about flounder fillets in a flounder bowl. You eat a little silky flounder, munch a little crispy flounder bone, go back to the one, back to the other. You experience flounder in its two guises: mild as clouds, crisp as a snap. Redundant? Perhaps, but sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is twice as nice.
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