You can tell a Chinese restaurant isn't thrilled about every item on the menu when the fonts of some dishes are italicized, the details are sparse, and they reside in a dark corner of the menu. Chinese-American staples are often relegated that way.
Tea House Restaurant makes no such pretense. Under the section American Classics are 13 dishes without pictures. Instead there are dish explanations as terse as a warning, and unceremoniously written, too. Descriptors such as "dark sauce" and "light sauce" will have that effect.
That's a pity, because I love Chinese-American food for how it nabs the trifecta of sweet, salty and sour with addicting textures. Tea House is my favorite Chinese restaurant in the Twin Cities, and their General Tao Chicken is, as expected, terrific.
You can order dishes like it, and you'll eat well scavenging through the classics. But you would be committing the culinary equivalent of visiting Disney World without staying for the fireworks.
At this Tea House, a 12-year-old restaurant on University Avenue SE. that shares a sleepy lot with a Days Inn, the fireworks are always on — and they continue to thrill.
The fireworks certainly hit you in different ways, and they're unique to the provinces from which they originate. The vinegar that's as complex as balsamic but so astringent that it makes you wince? That's Shanghai. The peppercorns, the heat of which envelops your throat and just throbs? Sichuan, with its hyper focus on numbing spice. And those comforting stews with floral notes that fade in, like the colors of Debussy's "La Mer"? Anhui, with homey staples that draw from the region's many spices.
You'll taste the distinction with dishes like Mala Chicken, where bite-sized pieces of bone-in chicken are deep-fried and pelted with dried Szechuan peppers; or tofu, shaped into generously sized cubes and braised with belt-buckle-sized slivers of pork belly. The stew has plenty of the spices, including star anise, and it's deeply aromatic.
It's one of a few recipes that Yolanda Wang, Tea House's co-owner, solicited from her grandmother, who used to operate a restaurant in Anhui, one of China's smallest regions, with an area about as big as North Carolina.
Wang didn't have much culinary experience beyond what she learned from her grandmother. When she and her immediate family immigrated here, opening a restaurant wasn't her plan.
But after relocating from Louisiana to Minnesota with her husband, Daniel, to find a contract manufacturer for his family's electronics business, she put more thought into a restaurant. In 1998, when Tea House Plymouth, then a mom-and-pop restaurant offering Chinese-American food, became available, the couple, along with Wang's sister, Melissa, bought it and began introducing select dishes from their hometowns. Over time, their ambitions grew.
Soon they acquired additional properties around the metro area that became Tea Houses — one in St. Paul, another in downtown Minneapolis, the one on University Avenue — and eventually sold all but one.
The current Tea House, with its fancy coffered ceilings, antique timber chairs and private, curtained booths, does evoke a tea house. Here, you can dress up (celebrations) or down (late-night suppers). The lighting is always flattering. Brunch is especially popular, a time when both foreign students and local families visit. No matter when you go, the food, even with its patchwork quilt of regional variations, is always buttoned-up. No other Chinese restaurant in the area compares.
Somehow, everything tastes sharper, brighter, more flavorful. The spices are there, but they don't taunt. There is balance.
House spicy fish, where slabs of fish fillet, as soft as tofu, bob in a lip-smacking stew swarming with peppercorns, bean sprouts and cabbage. It's hot but contoured — and slicked with enough oil to temper. If you've been to a Szechuan restaurant, you will have encountered a variation of this dish. Few are as well-rounded.
Wang's take on Kung Pao Chicken is gilded with a sauce that clings but doesn't cloy. It's sharp, yes, but it must be when sweet and spicy joust for attention. I couldn't stop eating it. Flavor hounds should consider the cumin lamb. The dish hails from Xinjiang, a northwest region in China, and borrows influences from the regions which it borders — Mongolia, India, among others — so the cumin is forthright. You must embrace its musk to enjoy the dish, and you should rest between mouthfuls to avoid getting overwhelmed by it, but the velvety strips of lamb are so tender that I ignored that directive.
To take things down a notch, go for the beef with potato, where the meat quivers and the sauce is (gloriously) sticky, or the braised meatballs, which are as big as billiard balls and as light as Italian meringue. It serves two but can easily be demolished by one. Nestled within are baby bok choy, but you really should be ordering your greens. A-Choy, a leafy vegetable stir-fried with vicious amounts of garlic, is my pick, but the gently chewy pea tips and meaty Szechuan green beans are darlings, too. You will be lavished either way.
If you're looking beyond regions, don't fret. Years ago, Wang licensed several recipes from Meizhou Dongpo, a Szechuan chain restaurant. Chief among them is Serrano Pepper Beef, one of the restaurant's simplest dishes. Brisket, with a band of jellylike fat, is sliced so thin that the meat wrinkles as it simmers in a light but flavorful stock. On top are nubs of the peppers, vibrant and lightly sweet.
It had me in rapture from the first bite to its last, not only because it's one of the best things I've eaten in recent memory, but because was a dish whose provenance I couldn't place — unlike anything I've ever tasted.
Then again, there isn't anything in the Twin Cities quite like Tea House.
2425 University Av. SE., Mpls., 612-331-8866, teahouseumn.com
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.