PHOTOGRAPHS BY BECCA DILLEY / HEAVY TABLE – ILLUSTRATIONS BY WACSO / HEAVY TABLE
This story was originally published as part of the Lyndale Avenue Checklist, a review of all independent restaurants on Lyndale Avenue, published in Heavy Table’s Patreon-subscriber exclusive newsletter.
A proper dim sum experience is like some kind of perpetual motion machine designed to deliver delight. There’s this constant flow of hungry patrons in and out and up and down. There’s the cacophony of clinking of plates and chopsticks and silverware and sauces being moved about at every table. There are the servers winding through the room pushing wheeled carts and balancing trays loaded with surprises. A visit to the right place at the right time can create an intoxicating buzz that’s completely unique and unparalleled in the culinary world.
Mandarin Kitchen delivers a proper dim sum experience.
They open at 9:30 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays for dim sum and you will want to get there early. By the time we arrived, around 9:45, there was a 30 minute wait and the crowd never stopped building. That said, if you do arrive late, there are bubbling industrial aquariums full of live seafood and a small koi pond in the waiting area to keep your restless family entertained. (Or they’ll text when your table is ready.)
To the uninitiated, dim sum may feel intimidating. But if you’re nervous about how it all works and/or you just don’t know what to take from those mysterious rolling carts, don’t be daunted. You could always go with someone that has done it before. Or better yet, treat it like a social experiment. Open yourself up. Talk to the servers and the excited patrons around you. Most people will be happy to share their knowledge. And sharing is a central tenet of the dim sum experience.
We took our own advice and used our short wait as an opportunity to pry information from our host, who turned out to be the son of the owner. He is convinced that Mandarin Kitchen offers the best Cantonese in the state. With his infectious enthusiasm, and our own experience with the food, we’re inclined to believe him. – M.C. Cronin
Writing about the dim sum at Mandarin Kitchen is difficult because so many things hit our table at various points, and all of them were so uniformly good. How many ways are there to say that something’s texture was light and delicate, its flavor bold and pure, its overall balance nearly perfect? I guess you’re about to find out.
But before we dive into specific dishes, a general note: Mandarin Kitchen makes its own soy sauce and its own chili oil, and they’re both great. The soy sauce has an almost citrus-like brightness to it that elevates dishes as it adds salt to the plate, and the chili oil offered as much earthy depth as it did heat. We ended up using both of them a LOT as we ate.
Here is me looking at my notes from this meal: a big, unreadable mess with a few repeated phrases: GOOD. Delicate. Tender. Balanced. When I think back to the meal I can see that lazy susan turning and turning and I can remember wanting to grab everything, without exception, that went around the table.
The Steamed Pork Dumpling ($6.35) might have been the best thing to hit the table, but there’s a lot of competition for that title. Remarkable delicate folds of pastry, a small but punchy filling of finely chopped pork, and a sweet, house-made sauce drizzled on top, tableside, to finish the dish.
The Steamed Shrimp Dumpling ($7.75) was nearly as good – a little sweeter, a little more delicate, and we missed the punch of seasoned pork, but not that much – this was also a total winner.
Wait… no, the best thing to hit the table was probably the Fried Crab Claws ($10), big, sweet, ethereal puffs of crab meat encrusted in a delicately browned fried exterior. Terrific with the chili oil, terrific by themselves. Just a heavy-hitting winner of a dish.
Our family has been a sucker for Fried Sesame Balls ($4.55) forever, and these were a lovely version of that dish – properly chewy, surprisingly light, with that earthy, chewy hit of umami at the center of each otherwise sweet-leaning pastry.
The Pineapple Buns ($5.35) – were these the best things we tried? Maybe – outside of Keefer Court we haven’t tasted a lot of Chinese-style baked goods that we’ve loved, but these were rich, delicate, and the perfect accompaniment to the tea that inhabited the pot at the center of our table.
On the other hand, wow, the Shrimp Shumai ($7.75) were just remarkable, and might be the best thing we ate – this dish gets so stodgy and heavy and (overly) chewy at so many spots, but at Mandarin Kitchen it was float-off-the-plate buoyant and delicate, perfectly paired with the housemade soy sauce.
Oh, and the BBQ Pork buns ($6.35), those were pretty amazing, too – cloudlike in texture, with a filling that packed meaty, lightly smokey flavor without being either a sugar or salt bomb.
In conclusion: we dare you to go to Mandarin Kitchen’s dim sum service and have a bad time. It would take a great deal of work, and, honestly, it might not even be possible. This is a serious place. – James Norton
Mandarin Kitchen, 8766 Lyndale Avenue South, Bloomington, Minn., 952.884.5356, MON-FRI 11am-Midnight, SAT-SUN 9:30-Midnight (Dim Sum is served from 9:30am-2pm on Saturday and Sunday; get there early – 9:15 or so – or come as tables start to turn over around 10:30-11)