Every Midwestern kid discovers the golden wonton at their local Chinese buffet — a fried treat to load the plate with before beelining to the soft serve. Children love the innocent crunch of the cream cheese wonton. It’s simple and smooth and basically makes them think they’re getting away with dessert before dinner. But let’s face it: The cream cheese wonton doesn’t really rank high on the adult list of palate pleasers.
Some Twin Cities establishments have tried to elevate the dish. Take Thom Pham, for example, the chef behind Thahn Do, Azia (R.I.P.), and the brand new Wondrous Azian Kitchen. Pham’s cranberry cream cheese puffs (below) are a favorite that made the cut in the move from Azia to Wondrous. They are listed on the menu as Thom Pham’s Wondrous Cranberry Puffs, in a special curling font. And their appearance is just as fancy schmancy. Biting into one reveals a practically fuchsia (okay, the lights were pretty low) interior, speckled with cranberry bits. They are plainly sweet, slightly squishy, and cheesy, sparked occasionally by a bit of scallion garnish.
But there are some new cream cheese specimens on the other side of town that just might take the wonton from good to yowzer. You can find them at Wok in the Park, St. Louis Park’s newest Asian spot, and funnily enough, the brain child of Thom Pham’s three sisters. Cheekily labeled Puffs in the Park, the little fried packages (pictured, top) are composed of “cream cheese, scallions and Crais’n Curry” — a similar description to the Wondrous Puffs. Nevertheless, they are hot and crisp, and their filling is a balanced and punchy combination that echoes a spicy homemade tomato soup rather than a super sweet bagel schmear. With a heat that fills every corner of your mouth, the wontons at Wok transcend what can sometimes be an overlooked appetizer or pseudo dessert.
The Puffs in the Park are just a glimpse into the what sisters Charis (left, above), Grace (center), and Hannah (right) pour into their first restaurant. From Perkins to Thahn Do, the three women grew up working in restaurants, often alongside their other siblings.
With the help of their head chef and brother, Jacob, they’ve managed to achieve some of their key goals. For one thing, “We’re completely MSG free,” says Grace. Hannah says they work hard to balance the flavors in every dish, in order to negate the need for this nutritionally controversial additive; “When you can do it [without MSG], the flavor is better. So now we have real flavors, real sweet and real salty and real spicy. You just have to balance them right.”
They also offer diners a variety of meat choices (including salmon and squid), as well as vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options for virtually every dish. The menu covers classic Chinese dishes, like Kung Pao Chicken and Chow Mein, and dips into Thai and Vietnamese cuisines as well.
Stop by Wok in the Park for a bowl of vegan Pho, if you please, as you sit at one of the sleek black tables beneath a constellation of paper globes and panels of Japanese-inspired graffiti. Or, just order a mountain of those Puffs, for here or to go. Your inner child will be glad.
3005 Utah Ave S
St. Louis Park, MN 55426
CHEF / OWNERS: Jacob Johnson / Hannah Johnson, Charis Fishbein, Grace Johnson
BAR: Beer and Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Not really
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-19
533 Hennepin Ave. S
Minneapolis, MN 55403
CHEF / OWNER: Thom Pham
Mon-Fri 11 am-2am
Sat-Sun 10 am-2am
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $12-40