Someone, somewhere, once said something along the lines of how every viable neighborhood possesses a drugstore, a dry cleaner and a Chinese restaurant.
I can’t vouch for the first two, but the North Loop in Minneapolis, otherwise known as the Twin Cities’ hottest dining district, has finally acquired that last attribute.
It’s called Jun, and based on its good looks alone, it bears little resemblance to its generic counterparts that populate strip malls from Shakopee to Shoreview. Not that its appeal is solely skin-deep.
Co-owners Jessie Wong and Jack Wang wisely left behind the boilerplate Chinese-Minnesotan menu of their own suburban operation, Szechuan in Roseville. Instead, they’re focusing on traditions culled from Wong’s homeland, the Chinese coastal province of Shandong, and adding fiery flavors from Sichuan. (Wong is Wang’s mother, and Jun is Wong’s Chinese name.)
There’s an engaging and welcoming home-kitchen vibe to their cooking, particularly from the corner of the menu that begs to be explored, over and over: the dumplings and noodles sections.
Every meal here should begin with the excellent Sichuan dumplings, filled with ginger-brightened ground pork, their wrappers made slippery by a feisty chile-infused oil.
The noodles? Lovely, whether they’re fat, flat rice noodles smothered in a slow-braised beef stew, or thick, slip-worthy wheat flour udon noodles dressed with a chile-laced sesame sauce and topped with tender minced pork.
Soups are also a hit, particularly when they intersect with noodles and, better yet, dumplings. There’s a steaming, intensely flavorful chicken broth, the golden elixir brimming with tender, bite-size pork- and shrimp-filled dumplings. The results are so simple, and so satisfying, that North Loopers should consider themselves fortunate to have ready access to such comfort-food excellence.
When the heat is on, it’s turned up to high, at least by this lapsed Lutheran’s standards.
Kick off a meal with crunchy cucumbers, their cool nature flipped on its ear with heaping helpings of garlic, chiles and a pungent vinegar. Then immerse your appetite into a platter of thin-sheared lamb, each bite redolent of a garlic- and cumin-a-thon. Or recalibrate your tofu-is-boring mind-set by allowing a kicking chile broth to insinuate itself into the silky stuff.
Kudos also for serving off-the-beaten-path ingredients: Chicken feet, beef tripe, pig’s ears and pork kidneys all have their place on the menu. They may not appeal to mainstream tastes, but they sure help set the restaurant apart from its cookie-cutter brethren.
From here, my experiences often landed into a round of Menu Roulette. Would I win, or lose?
The deciding factors often fell into two camps: a too timid hand with the heat, or a reliance on second-best cuts of beef, pork and lamb.
Oh, and a third: when these obviously talented Chinese cooks made a misguided play for mainstream American tastes. Cream cheese wontons, really?
Rock bottom was a dinner when several dishes skirted Panda Express levels of prepackaged dreariness — why bother with cashew chicken and other rote iterations of food court dishes, especially subpar versions of them? As for dessert, skip it.
Service was one frustrating mishap after another. The topper was the subsequent dry cleaning bill; proximity to the kitchen’s woks ensured that my clothes reeked of Eau de Chinese Restaurant.
Disappointed, I was on the verge of writing the place off. Instead, I reluctantly returned, ordered those Sichuan dumplings and said a silent prayer.
It was answered, because, suddenly, out of nowhere, a dim sum menu appeared. Salvation!
Dim sum may be the original small-plates format, and grazing your way through steamed, baked and fried variations on dumplings and buns can be a happy and delightfully satisfying way to approach a meal. It sure is at Jun.
(After quietly starting out as a daytime-only offering, the restaurant’s dim sum service now runs whenever the kitchen is cooking, hurrah.)
At Jun, portions usually involve two to three dumplings/buns per serving, with the vast majority at $4.50 or $5.50, plus a few options at $7.50.
The obvious quality and the variety — there are more than three dozen options — encourage exploration, on a gung-ho level. It’s easy to get carried away and still be shocked — pleasantly — when the tab is tallied.
This observation is so basic, but what’s easy to appreciate is Wang’s and Wong’s easy affinity with flours.
Whether they’re the foundation for delicate, translucent dumplings, or the genesis of gently yeasty, golden buns, or the backbone of pale, spongy bao, the outcome clearly demonstrates that this kitchen has the touch for these handmade delicacies. And then some.
When it comes to navigating that lengthy dim sum spread, the obvious introductory portal is shrimp. That’s because, whatever the wrapper, and the cooking treatment, they remain deliciously juicy and snappy.
Whenever a baked bun presents itself (particularly if it’s filled with sweetly accented pork, or fatty pork belly), order it. Go ahead, order two.
Sugar, too, because here’s where their sweets shine, from a creamy, intensely flavorful mango pudding to cream puff-esque egg-yolk buns.
Still, kinks need to be worked out. My initial dim sum encounter was a paper menu, with brief descriptions. But where’s the fun in that?
A follow-up experience was more on track. It featured the requisite cart and, with it, the traditional show-and-tell lifting of lids to reveal treasures, although our server’s level of knowledge appeared to be roughly equivalent to ours. Baby steps, right?
The kitchen is on a dim sum roll. Here’s hoping the dining room’s grasp of the genre catches up to the same speed.
Using the neighborhood’s countless lofts as a design template, Smart Associates of Minneapolis has wiped away all traces of the space’s two short-lived, utterly forgettable predecessors, and gave the setting a much-needed do-over.
Two design ideas really stand out. Ceilings are lined with rows of the hollow tubular forms used for pouring concrete (their product name is Sonotubes), a lighting solution that’s not only visually arresting but surely must also play a role in the conversation-friendly acoustics.
Eye-catching room dividers, fashioned from steel, are punched with Chinese characters (they spell “Jun”), branding the space with a sense of cultural identity.
A sleek neutral color palette is shocked by palate-cleansing pops of chartreuse, and a gorgeous marble slab tops the user-friendly bar. If West Elm operated a Chinese cafe, it might resemble this highly hang-out-able environment.
The restaurant’s prime real estate is the nine-seat kitchen counter, a front-and-center perch for observing the hardworking crew as they immerse themselves in the serious fun of noodle- and dumpling-making.
It’s a fascinating show. Just don’t expect the dialogue to be delivered in English.