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After running a wholesale sushi operation for a few years, Kjersten and Mie Winters decided to try their hand at the restaurant business. They have succeeded with their charming Obento-Ya Japanese Bistro.
Kjersten is a former Marine who fell for the food -- and Mie -- when he was stationed in Japan. The two of them turn out a menu that's roughly divided into three parts: bento boxes, sushi and robata. The bentos, a refined version of a school lunch tray, feature some kind of simply prepared protein (ginger-marinated pork, grilled salmon, sake-glazed cod), steamed rice, a tossed field-greens salad, a small bowl of piping hot miso soup and a scoop of mashed potato salad. It's big eating on a small budget; most full-meal combos fall in the $7 to $8 range.
There's sushi, too, and it's fine, but what's really appealing are the robata: a few ounces of meat, fish or vegetables, skewered and quickly seared on a small gas-fired grill. There are several dozen choices, and, like tapas, they're a great way to eat; just keep ordering (prices average $2.25) until you're stuffed. I like the flavorful chicken thighs, the rich bacon-quail egg combo, the tender mackerel, the marvelous chicken meatballs, all served with tasty house-made sauces.
Soups are another highlight. One frigid night I warmed myself up over a hearty beef broth filled with slurpy ramen noodles, tangy green onions, a few long and colorful strands of seaweed and flecks of sesame. Oh, and you really can't take a seat at the bamboo-lined bar without ordering the fantastic pork-shiitake dumplings, each bite brimming with a sharp ginger accent.
Somehow the Winterses shoehorned their hip-looking restaurant (Kjersten, a former engineer, designed it himself with the aid of a software program) into its tiny storefront, squeezing 30 or so seats, a 10-stool sushi bar and a cheerful college-age staff into a space smaller than a Winnebago motor home. The only missing elements are a wine/beer license and a patio; both are on their way.
Nina Wong knows the restaurant business. She worked at her family's hugely popular Rainbow Chinese Restaurant and Bar for nearly two decades before striking out on her own a few years ago with East River Market, a small grocery and deli. Since then, her personal and professional lives have evolved; she married customer Thomas Gnanapragasam, they have a 10-month-old daughter, Tia, and together the couple has converted the largely stop-and-shop enterprise into ChinDian Cafe. The new name on the door reflects the couple's collective heritages: Wong was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, and Gnanapragasam is third-generation Malaysian with Indian roots. It also mirrors what's going on in the kitchen, where a blending of their families' cooking heritages -- and sprinkling in a few Western touches -- makes for deliciously appealing food.
That starts with an amazing spring-roll formula that pops with the crunch of romaine, the cool bite of shrimp, bits of sweet barbecue pork and tons of refreshingly flavorful peppermint, spearmint, coriander and basil. There are big, steaming bowls of soup -- a rich chicken stock brimming with shrimp, beef, pork or tofu -- that judiciously borrows tomato, jalapeño and other salsa building blocks before it finishes with bright mint accents. It goes great with a tall glass of vibrant, house-brewed ginger tea.
I loved a plate of skinny chow mai fun noodles liberally tossed with bits of egg, bean sprouts, pork, shrimp and a fragrant, teasingly spicy blend of cayenne, turmeric and cinnamon. A big glass bowl layered with romaine, rice noodles, onions sautéed with lemon grass and crushed peanuts made for a showy salad, and Wong's "Asian hoagies" start out right, with first-rate baguettes from New French Bakery.
The low-profile location, perched in a mostly industrial area on the northernmost fringes of southeast Minneapolis, feels like foreign territory compared with Wong's former Eat Street stomping grounds, but don't let that be a deterrent. The dining room is modest but inviting, and if you're lucky you'll get a glimpse of the couple's adorable daughter; this really is a mom-and-pop operation. Prices are extremely reasonable, particularly given the robust flavor profiles.
Here's another reason to stop by: Wong is getting ready to roll out additional menu items. And maybe dessert. In her newly adopted neighborhood, Wong has developed an underground reputation for making, by request only, a mean pecan pie and an equally noteworthy carrot cake. Perhaps, if enough customers pester her, she'll make them permanent fixtures. "Why not?" Wong said with a laugh. "I love to bake, so you never know."
"Smell that garlic," sighed my friend, a big smile stretching across his face. He was flashing chopsticks across a hefty pile of sizzlingly hot jumbo shrimp, lightly battered and flexing a strong garlicky punch. But he could have been talking about the dish in front of me, another plate of plus-size shrimp, each bite emboldened by dry chili peppers and crunchy bits of fried garlic.
How we landed on those two winning dishes, I'm not sure, as the 12-page menu at Pagoda has so many items -- 249 and counting -- that diners could take the better part of a year to eat their way across its broad culinary swipes through Korea, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan. One lunch might be something as tame as moo goo gai pan or General Tso's Chicken; the following dinner could mean a whole baked tilapia, pan-fried noodles with succulent duck and tart pickled vegetables, a zesty fried rice with mustard greens and dried shrimp or a clam congee.
The kitchen really has an eye on feeding the busy neighborhood. Not only is there a long list of $5.25 lunch options, but several to-go cases boast crispy roast ducks, racks of honey-glazed pork ribs and a variety of sweet and savory buns, all poised to be used as fuel for an all-night studython. Other pluses include generous portions, affordable prices (the majority of the vast menu offerings are under $10), even the nothing-fancy beer and wine selection.
The dining room is spacious and pleasantly appointed; I especially like the long counter fronting the storefront window, with each seat offering a sidewalk-superintendent view of the bustling streetscape. Late-night service and a fast lunchtime build-your-own-noodle soup bar have both come and gone (although the after-midnight hours may return with the warmer weather). Too bad, because both seemed perfectly suited for the University dining demographic (Pagoda bears lots of similarities to the Village Wok, the Stadium Village institution on the other side of campus). But how great is this? Last year, a few national chains rolled into Dinkytown, casting a bland note on what has traditionally been an indie-minded commercial district. It's nice to see a spirited newcomer land next door to McDonald's.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757