Texture and Snap
88 Nathan Lane, Plymouth
(in the Willow Grove Center mall)
Of course there is no Chinese food, just as there is no American food. China's a big country full of different regions, geography, tribes, traditions, and agriculture. However, in Minnesota, generally, this information and nine bucks will get you a martini. So when I ran into local food nut Josh Resnick one evening as dusk settled upon a local lake, and he told me about Tea House, a local Chinese restaurant with a special Sichuan menu, I listened like a panda bear with a lead on a fresh new bamboo grove.
Now, Sichuan, or Szechuan, is a word you'll sometimes see on lousy Chinese restaurant menus used to connote the phrase "Tons of chili peppers with no style, drink more." In fact, though, Sichuan food isn't merely spicy, it's all of the hearty stuff that comes from the river-threaded, richly fertile, steamy agricultural areas in southeast central China around the major cities of Chongqing and Chengdu, and it comprises dishes that are both ma la (numbing and burning) and also not so spicy at all. Whereas most Chinese food is Cantonese food, in which a velvety clarity is the ideal, Sichuan food is about the intricate layering of sauces, spices, and textures. You could think of the difference between Cantonese food and Sichuan food as roughly like the American difference between Yankee clarity and Cajun complexity. But enough with the Sichuan-cuisine primer.
The first thing you need to know is where Tea House is. Of course, it's in the unlikeliest-looking of local strip malls, the Willow Grove Center, which is itself nestled between Highway 55 and Interstate 394, just west of Highway 169, in the same mall as the Willow Creek 8 movie theater. The second thing you need to know is that you need to ask for the Sichuan menu, which generally puts you in a different room and gets you a different server from those you'd get with the restaurant's Chinese-American menu. The Sichuan menu is easily accessible, though. It's full of pictures, it's clearly arranged into appetizers and other courses, and whatever you order your server will tell you is too hot for you. You will tell them it is not. They will shake their heads in doubt. You will tell them that most nights you just sit home chewing on white-hot pokers straight from the fire. Now you are off and running.
First, I cannot recommend the sauced cucumber enough. Hot rectangles of cucumber topped with a handful of charred chili peppers in a nearly invisible rice-wine sauce sound odd, but this is a truly elegant dish that works as a perfect introduction to the cuisine. The dish is visually beautiful, the pale rectangles of cucumber looking like glazed marble, the earthy brown chili peppers as pretty as leaves floating on a pond. But it's also texturally elegant, as the cucumber slices become slippery with oil, and it's an utterly unusual taste, as the trilling purity of the lake-like cucumber is thrown into the spotlight by the glaze of fire from the chilis. These cucumbers ($4.95) are like tasting the blade of a silver knife.
Bamboo tips in spicy sauce ($6.50) should be ordered for several reasons; for one, so that you will remember that the Wolong Nature Reserve, in western Sichuan province, is where you would go to see pandas in their natural habitat, and what is it that pandas eat? Bamboo. Some 45 kilos a day. These are the bamboo tips that pandas would eat if they sat down in local restaurants. Crunchy, pale, looking like a cross between retractable antennae and geometric Aztec art, they're sauced with chili oil, ginger, garlic, and fresh slices of scallion, and have all the crunchy appeal of summertime picnic food.
Texture and snap are key in Sichuan cooking (just as they are in American snack foods), and the appetizer section of the menu is where you can really experience the wealth of textural possibilities. Dan-dan noodles ($3.95) are the big street vendor snack in Chengdu; at Tea Garden they dish up chewy bowls of weighty wheat noodles glistening with chili oil, bright with scallion slices, and given even more textural interest by a scattering of moist morsels of ground pork. When you order them, your server will ask if you only want one order, and once you taste this textural comfort you'll understand why.
For more adventurous eaters there are other glorious pleasures: Boiled sliced pork with Sichuan garlic sauce ($6.50) is a silky sort of cold bacon, like Italian lardo, in a piquant, muscular, potent concoction of soy and spice. Omasum in ground garlic ($6.50) is cold tripe as light and clean as lace shining under a spotlight of chili.
Tea House itself shines most brightly during weekend days. That's the traditional time for Chinese feasting and socializing, and that's when Tea Garden converts a few of its tables to giant, round 12-seaters for family dining, and debuts the most extravagant of seafood specials. One Sunday afternoon I tried a baby squid and tofu hot pot ($13.95) that was nothing short of phenomenal: A sea of chili-orange broth simmered in a tureen perched over a little burner, and through this terra cotta sea swam whole, tiny violet squids, lithe white folds of tender, older squid, wee rafts of fresh, gelatinous tofu, and wavering stalks of sliced scallion. Fiery and tender, oceanic and mild, this dish was as sensuous as a spa treatment, and twice as tasty. (Every time I've been to Tea House there's been a similar seafood special of "dancing fish," in which tender fish fillets swim in a chili broth with a full bouquet of cilantro--this is another must-order.)
My final picks for dishes you must have this year include the eggplant in garlic sauce ($9.95), in which silky chunks of purple eggplant shimmer beneath a rich ground pork ragu, and the pi pa tofu ($10.95) which is above all a showpiece of extraordinary cooking skill. To make it, fresh tofu is folded together with shrimp mousse and further combined with shrimp and vegetable chunks. Pillows of the mixture are then steamed, coated in flour, fried, and served to you with a chili and vinegar sauce. They look like doughnuts, but once you bite through the crisp, chewy exterior, you find a fluffy mist of subtle, melodic ocean within. It's like eating a crispy seafood cloud.
Not everything I tried at the restaurant was so wonderful. The later you get there on weeknights the worse the food is, and I definitely wouldn't recommend the ho-hum tea smoked duck, the showy but tasteless crispy rice crust extravaganza, or the merely salty and peanut-filled kung pao anything. Otherwise, the restaurant has a nice beer and wine list, offers enough parking for this year's Olsen family reunion, and, generally, adds to one's overall sense of urban well-being. A great Chinese restaurant across from a movie theater? What a marvelous development.
So I'd like to say: Welcome, magnificent newcomer. Except that I can't, as I sheepishly report that Tea House has been quietly operating in its sleepy mall for the last 18 years. Eighteen years! Though, to be fair, sisters Melissa Ho and Yolanda Wang, the restaurant's co-owners, only debuted the authentic Chinese menu three years ago, recently redid the interior so that it seems like a brand new restaurant, and just hired a very talented chef from Chengdu who is responsible for the magnificent seafood specials. So while Tea House has been there for 18 years, it's also kind of brand-new. Imagine if our other Chinese restaurants pulled similar tricks out of their hats! I tell you, the food scene in the Twin Cities is like a marriage. You think you know someone and then out of nowhere--kapow! Hot-sauced cucumbers, little simmering squids. Isn't it romantic?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.