At first glance — and even at second and third glances — Eden Prairie’s Red Moon Chinese Cafe seems like just another strip-mall buffet place with overly bright lighting, an obviously active deep fryer, and generic Chinese decor.
Once inside, you could be just about anywhere in the country that serves up this particular blend of kind-of-Chinese food and ambiance. Personally, I’ve visited this exact restaurant in suburbs outside of Memphis, San Diego, Boston, and even Houston. The aroma and atmosphere are so similar that sometimes it feels like an elaborate network created by the Chinese buffet mafia, who are intent on controlling us with cream cheese wontons.
With a plate piled high with everything from the buffet, the illusion continued, as I contemplated the American-type favorites like sweet and sour chicken and fried rice. But with the first taste came a revelation: Red Moon trumps all those pretenders. This is the real stuff.
Family-run, Red Moon is helmed by Tin Tat Kwan, who began working in Hong Kong restaurants at the age of 17. What he didn’t receive in formal education — no cooking school pedigree here, in other words — he made up for in extensive personal experience. When he emigrated to Minnesota in 1976, he made his mark at the well-visited Village Wok in Dinkytown, then opened his own place in Minneapolis just six years later. After a decade and a half, he and the family sold the restaurant and moved their talents to Eden Prairie.
That distinctive pedigree and expertise certainly shows up in the restaurant’s dishes. They might look like standard fare, but the subtle spices and perfectly cooked vegetables make other Chinese buffet places fade into memory.
At both the lunch buffet ($7.50) and the dinner buffet ($10), traditional dishes abound, from the beef and broccoli to the kung pao chicken (vegetarians beware, this is a meaty buffet). Rather than sharing the same general flavor, as sometimes happens at a place with so many dishes on the same plate, each entree has a distinctive, well-articulated flavor.
A particular standout is the hot pepper chicken, steamed white meat with red and green peppers. The spices are artfully done, giving just a little kick at the end of each bite, but delivering an earthy, peppery taste throughout. The dish pairs well with another understated offering, mushrooms in garlic sauce. Putting fresh mushrooms in a buffet seems like a recipe for disaster, or at least for shriveled and tough little mushrooms. But Red Moon seems to have figured out, at last, how to cook and present them in a way that retains their texture and, more importantly, their taste.
Another kickass surprise is the kung pao chicken. How can I adequately describe how much lackluster kung pao chicken I’ve eaten in my life, given the fact that my father was a rabid fan of strip-mall Chinese joints? It seems astounding, somehow, to look back and think of all those many plates heaped high with just this dish, and how, even as a kid, I found it lacking.
Fortunately, I can skip therapy and just go back to Red Moon instead, because this is how kung pao chicken is supposed to taste, I see now. The sauce here is so delicate and slightly sweet that the chicken almost seems candied, but not in a cloying kind of way. The celery is crisp, and the peanuts add just the right degree of crunch and flavor.
Even the cream cheese wontons are far above their competitors. The creamy center might be similar, but the wontons themselves are so super crisp that they fall apart like a gorgeous French pastry.
Diners can order off the menu during buffet hours, but why would you? Usually, I employ that strategy when I notice how lackluster and warmed-over a buffet looks, with all those sad, mushy vegetables looking neglected and tired. Often, ordering from the menu tends to ensure a freshness that could never come from a steam tray.
But the smaller overall buffet size and more shallow serving trays at Red Moon mean the food gets refreshed at a fairly steady clip. In my first half hour there, I noticed that every one of the eight main entrees got replaced twice (my second half hour was spent trying to figure out how to magically expand my stomach so I could go up for thirds).
The menu option is handy, though, for when the buffet isn’t served, such as weekday evenings. Then, the choices can get truly difficult, like whether to choose the ginger tomato chicken ($12), with its well-blended fusion of gingery spice with earthy tomato flavors, or the mock duck’s nest ($11), a mix of sautéed vegetables and mock duck with a black bean garlic sauce.
Whatever the choice, it’s likely that you won’t walk away thinking of this as yet another awkward combo of American-meets-Cantonese dishes. Sure, the ambiance leaves a great deal to be desired, and the location isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, with its proximity to stores like “Once Upon a Child” and one of Eden Prairie’s three Starbucks outlets.
But then again, there’s something a bit charming about finding gourmet food inside a strip mall; it’s like being a food-obsessed sleuth who knows all the secret hot spots. All I know is that this won’t be the last time that the hot pepper chicken and I arrange to meet in the suburbs.
Red Moon Chinese Cafe
Chinese food in Eden Prairie
582 Prairie Center Dr
Eden Prairie, MN 55344
Buffet open for lunch every day 11am-2:30pm and for dinner Fri. and Sat. 5pm-8:30pm
Menu dining open Sun. through Thurs. 11am-9pm and Fri .and Sat. 11am-10pm
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$15, set prices for buffets
BAR: BYOB, beer or wine only