Chinese choices: nonstop dim sum at Jun Bo in Richfield; savory soups and Shanghai specialties at China Jen in Roseville.
The new Jun Bo in Richfield isn't just the biggest Chinese restaurant in Minnesota; unless I am mistaken, it's the biggest restaurant of any kind in the state. Maybe even in the entire Upper Midwest. China Jen, a modest little storefront restaurant in Roseville, isn't nearly as big, but for lovers of authentic Chinese cuisine, it also has a lot to offer.
Jun Bo means "precious treasure" in Chinese, but it sounds a lot like jumbo, and that name fits. With room for up to 1,000 diners, including 600 seats in the main dining room, the former Chi-Chi's at Interstate Hwy. 494 and Nicollet Av. S. is likely to become the area's premier venue for Chinese wedding banquets and other community events. On one wall, an elaborate gilded sculpture of a dragon and phoenix surrounds the Chinese "double happiness" character, which symbolizes marriage.
Jun Bo offers two very different Chinese menus: one featuring more authentic Cantonese dishes, and the other for diners who prefer Chinese-American fare. (The menu covers look identical, but if you want the more authentic stuff, look for the red dot.)
For fans of authentic Chinese cuisine, Jun Bo's repertoire offers a big selection of seafood dishes, including live lobster and Dungeness crab; some unusual hot-pot dishes, and some traditional vegetable dishes like hollow vegetable, choy sum, watercress and pea pod sprouts that are seldom available locally. And for the truly adventurous, there are such specialties as fish maw and crab meat soup; shark fin soup, salt and pepper duck tongue and Hung Shu pigeon.
Trendy cuisines come and go, but Cantonese is still one of my favorites, so I am in pig heaven at Jun Bo. Hot-pot dishes such as the fatty, chewy double-cooked pork with taro root or diced chicken with aromatic salted fish and tofu aren't everybody's cup of tea, but I was very pleased with both of them. I also loved the tender, flavorful Champagne baby beef ribs, and the soup of dried scallops, duck, pork and chicken, thickened with egg whites.
Overall, food quality seems comparable to other local restaurants that cater to a Chinese clientele, such as Mandarin Kitchen in Bloomington, China Jen in Roseville (see below), and Yummy, Village Wok, Peking Garden and Hong Kong Noodle in Minneapolis. But Jun Bo's prices are higher than most of its competitors, especially for the seafood dishes: the Dungeness crab costs $25.95 at Jun Bo, vs. $13.95 at Mandarin Kitchen.
Jun Bo does have one important attraction: a big selection of dim sum (tea snacks) served all day, every day, including steamed shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, baked buns stuffed with barbecue pork, chicken feet, boneless duck feet, deep-fried shrimp balls, turnip cake, custard tarts and many more. At lunch and dinner, they are served from carts stacked high with steamer baskets that circulate in the dining room; later in the evening, they can be ordered from a menu. The biggest selection is on weekends, when more than 80 kinds are available; the selection is smaller on weekdays.
Monday night is karaoke night in the adjacent bar. If you are not a fan, be forewarned: The sound carries over to the dining room. Other special events include free Texas Hold'em tournaments on Wednesday nights and a free mah-jongg tournament Saturday nights at midnight.
China Jen in Roseville is a more modest enterprise, but also offers its share of culinary delights and surprises. Like Jun Bo, it offers both the usual chow mein, fried rice and egg foo young, and more authentic Cantonese fare, ranging from a very tasty seafood tofu hot pot and stir-fried watercress with garlic sauce to shredded duck chow fun and pork with pickled mustard. There's a good selection of meal-sized noodle soups, including beef brisket wonton noodle, and roast duck noodle soup. (Whole roast ducks, on display in a glass case, are available for dining in or carry-out.)
What's most unusual about China Jen's menu, though, is the assortment of Shanghai specialties, such as the flaky scallion pancakes, the steamed pork dumplings served in a steamer basket, and the chewy Shanghai rice cakes with Chinese sausage and scallions. The pork dumplings are distant cousins of the pot stickers found at most Chinese restaurants, but have a thinner skin and much juicier filling. (You can also find a good assortment of Shanghai dishes at Grand Shanghai in St. Paul, which is also recommended.) DIG IN
Jun Bo: 7717 Nicollet Av. S., Richfield, 612-866-6888. Hours: Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m, Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Full bar.
China Jen: 2193 N. Snelling Av., Roseville, 651-633-3113. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Lunch buffet served 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays. No alcohol.