Moo Shu Pork from Lao Sze Chuan

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

There tend to be two kinds of Chinese-American restaurants around here: small, neighborhood spots and bigger institutions. The former typically offer food that ranges from the unremarkable to the excruciating; the latter can be good (even excellent), but they are still quite chef-driven (as opposed to being institutionally robust), and can turn on a dime when a talented cook departs for another kitchen. In addition to the grandly ambitious Peking Garden in the Midway area of St. Paul, we’ve fallen into a wary alliance with Tea House and Hong Kong Noodle, two U of M East Bank spots that seem to be catering to international students as much as (or more than) the local clientele, much to the benefit of the food.

Add to that list a third campus spot: the relatively new Lao Sze Chuan, located just around the corner from the other two. Unlike its peers, Lao Sze Chuan is part of a small national chain originating in Chicago, and this promises real long-term consistency and stability.

We discovered Lao Sze Chuan on Bite Squad and fell immediately in love with their Moo Shu Pork ($14.45). It’s hard to find a good version of the dish, so when you do, it registers. Moo shu pork tends to go wrong in two distinct but often complementary ways. It can be far too wet — essentially a pile of gloppy dampness. And it can be essentially flavorless, a mass of neutral nothingness, enriched only by the hoisin that it’s served with. Another not-so-unusual problem: cheap, terminally stale “pancakes” that taste of dust and disappointment.

Lao Sze Chuan’s version is supple but not drowning in liquid, and it tastes primarily of carrots, nicely seasoned scrambled eggs, and delicate, tender strips of pork. A mushroomy earthiness permeates the dish, and the four large pancakes that accompany it (pictured above) are sufficient to enjoy through a full meal (as opposed to the three or even two medium-sized or small pancakes that other places will sometimes grudgingly supply).

Author’s Note: On a lark, we made our own Mandarin pancakes to accompany our moo shu and found them to be deliciously chewy and a good fit for the dish. Take 2 cups of all purpose flour, make a well, and stir in ¾ cup of boiling water until a rough dough forms. Knead until the dough is smooth and stretchy, 5-10 minutes; then rest it under a damp cloth for 15 minutes. Roll out to ¼-inch thick, and then use a glass (or any 2½-inch-diameter circle) to cut out 16-24 discs. Line up the discs in two rows, and paint half the discs with sesame oil on one side. Put together pairs of discs (with sesame oil in the middle, like a sandwich), and then roll them out to about 5-6 inches in diameter. Cook them in a preheated, ungreased, saute pan at medium heat for 30-60 seconds a side, until they have brown spots, and then peel apart the two pancakes. Place them on a plate under tinfoil, and serve with the moo shu pork. (Adapted from a recipe in Foods of the World: Chinese Cooking).

Lao Sze Chuan, 317 Huron Blvd SE, Minneapolis; 612.379.1983

East Lake Checklist: Miramar to San Miguel Bakery

WACSO / Heavy Table

Is there such a thing as gastronomic whiplash? If so, we’re pretty sure we experienced it this outing. Within a span of a few hours we went from fish tacos to goat meat to mu shu pork to asada quesadillas to pineapple pastries. You might think by the end, we’d be begging for mercy. And to some extent we were. Yet, as we’ve learned before, our body’s ability to consume food doesn’t adhere to a strict rule book. Which may be why, after a long night of stuffing food in our faces, we still found ourselves shoveling forkful after forkful of chocolate flan cake down our gullets. So much for moderation (and modesty). — M.C. Cronin

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Ben Hajkal, James Norton

OTHER EAST LAKE STREET CHECKLIST INSTALLMENTS: Lake Plaza, Gorditas el Gordo to Pineda Tacos, Taqueria Victor Hugo to Safari Restaurant, El Sabor Chuchi to The Rabbit Hole, Midtown Global Market, Miramar to San Miguel Bakery, Mercado Central, Ingebretsen’s to Pasteleria Gama, La Alborada to Quruxlow, Midori’s Floating World to El Nuevo Rodeo, Urban Forage to Himalayan, Blue Moon Coffee Cafe to Merlin’s Rest, Hi Lo Diner to The Bungalow Club

Ben Hejkal / Heavy Table

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

The East Lake Checklist is the third Heavy Table illustrated travelogue to explore a major gastronomic thoroughfare in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul. The East Lake Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue and our 72-restaurant series about restaurants on the Green Line. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot on East Lake Street between 35W and the Mississippi River. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)

This series is made possible by underwriting from Visit Lake Street. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue and the Green Line, this tour will be warts-and-all.

“From the river to the lakes, visitors and residents can shop local and be social on Lake Street. More information at VisitLakeStreet.com.”

 

WACSO / Heavy Table

El Nuevo Miramar
501 E Lake St, Minneapolis

You have to hand it to El Nuevo Miramar. For a new restaurant and bar, they went big.

WACSO / Heavy Table

The space is big. It’s on a corner with two-story-high ceilings surrounded by windows. A staircase at the end of the room rises to a loft area. One wall is painted to look like a stage, complete with red velvet curtains. It appeared as though they could move a few tables and convert the place into a performance hall in a matter of minutes, though our server told us they use the space mostly for karaoke at the moment.

WACSO / Heavy Table

The lighting is big. There are large chandeliers. There’s LED accent lighting running length of the bar and along a row of high top booths. There are industrial-strength fluorescent fixtures. There’s a professional stage-lighting rig that wasn’t turned on the night we visited, thankfully. Even without the stage lights, the place was bright enough to see from space.

The food is big, too. A group of people near us shared some kind of seafood platter, featuring crab legs, that stretched out across the table. Two gentlemen next to us had giant glass goblets filled with a chilled shrimp cocktail concoction. As for the size of our tacos, well, they could’ve been carried to the table by forklift. — M.C.

*** FOOD NOTES ***

Ben Hejkal / Heavy Table

#1 Meal at Cora’s Best Chicken Wings

James Norton / Heavy Table

For five dollars at Cora’s on Payne Avenue, you can buy a #1 Meal consisting of three fried chicken wings, an egg roll, a pile of fried rice and … wait for it … an entire can of Coke or one of the off-brand sodas stocked in the cooler. You may have to ask for the beverage, and they’ll give it to you begrudgingly. But it’s right up there on the menu. Know your rights.

The atmosphere in Cora’s consists of scuffed-up tiles, signs pitching bulk-rate catering deals, a well-loved rubber mat, and a cash register set so far back from the main counter as to be nearly invisible. Aluminum chafing dishes hold the most recently made wings, and service is relaxed. You can read a religious pamphlet about the evils of pornography while you wait, but you’ll have to stand while you do it.

James Norton / Heavy Table

But back to the meal. If you value the soda at about $1.50 — which seems to be the going rate in most shops — you’re paying $3.50 for three wings, an egg roll, and a pile of fried rice. At this price, you’d expect excruciatingly inedible food, and it would still be a fair value.

But no. The egg roll is tiny, roughly cigarillo-sized, and stuffed with nothing but seasoned cabbage. You get the sense that it’s the absolute minimum a restaurant can provide while still meeting the federal government’s definition of “egg roll.” And yet — it’s not bad. Truly crisp. Simply seasoned, but properly so. A good wrapper-to-filling ratio. It’s enjoyable, and it goes down in about three dainty bites.

The fried rice comes with enough garlic and salt to stop and then pickle a vampiric Lhasa Apso, but it doesn’t veer into the realm of the inedible. It’s simple, it’s comforting, it’s basically just rice with a couple of token bits of peas and corn, but it’s food. Another win.

And then the pièce de résistance, three fried chicken wings for what must be about $2, in terms of how this meal prices out. We got ours spicy, and they really were. There was a pleasant heat that lingered on and on, the heat-to-sweet ratio was good, and the wings were distinctly and pleasantly crunchy. These aren’t gourmet wings, and maybe you don’t want to drive in from South Minneapolis to eat them. But they’re done with a lot more care and seriousness than wings we’ve had in many other casual restaurants.

We don’t pretend to understand the economics at work in the #1 Meal at Cora’s, but we’re pleased with the result.

Cora’s Best Chicken Wings, 1143 Payne Ave, St. Paul, Minnesota; 651.776.0020

Green Line Checklist: Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

We crossed Highway 280. And somehow this felt like a major accomplishment. Perhaps not on the level of say a manned mission to Mars, but still we’ve made it through something like 50 places, so forgive us our minor celebration.

We’re also encroaching on the University of Minnesota. The change is becoming palpable. We hit our first sports bar and a restaurant named, not coincidentally, U Garden.

We also crossed the Minneapolis border somewhere along the way. Though, we’re not sure exactly where. Some say that the border runs right through the KSTP building (splitting the TV and radio sides of the house). But we’re not surveyors. We’re just your average restaurant spelunkers. And we have 20 more joints to go. So let’s get on with it. — M.C. Cronin

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table / “well worn checklist notebook.”

This week’s checklist crew: WACSO, M.C. Cronin, Becca Dilley, James Norton, Kirsten Canterbury, Erik Hegg.

ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

The Green Line Checklist is the Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)

central-corridor-funders-logoThis series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Caspian Bistro
2418 University Ave SE, Minneapolis
Stadium Village Station

The owner of Caspian Bistro unsheathed a kebab skewer that looked something like a small flat sword with a wooden handle and used it as a pointer to show us the geographical area on the map that generally makes up the Near East.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

He then held up the skewer and explained to us that this was the primary form of cooking in the region and that the word “kebab” actually derives from an ancient word meaning “burn.” The stainless steel blade cooks the meat from the inside, while the coals and fire char it on the outside.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

At the end of his mini educational seminar, the owner jotted down a list of items we should order from the menu. We took our list and were seated at a table in the dining room.

It’s a large, comfortable room with brick walls, wood floors, and arched ceiling. Paintings hanging along every wall were like snapshots depicting the faces and culture of the Near East. They looked like traditional oil paintings until a closer inspection revealed they were actually framed sections of intricately worked carpets. Like a Velvet Elvis except, you know, classy.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

The marketplace is chock full of exotic delights. There are multiple varieties of feta, a dazzling array of olives, and urns filled with nuts from various Near Eastern countries. And of course, the owner was happy to give us a culinary tour of his deli case while imbuing us with fascinating facts. (Did you know that some almonds are actually apricot seeds? Neither did we.)

Kung Pao Chicken at Yang’s in Woodbury

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

If you grew up in an era where chow mein was in the rotation with corn dogs and pizza on the elementary school cafeteria lunch menu, you could be excused for holding an aversion to that kind of American-style Chinese food, the kind that is available in every town, no matter how small or how far flung. You probably long ago sought out more palate-challenging fare like Korean or Hmong, never casting a backward glance at your neighborhood Chinese takeout lest you turn into a pillar of MSG. But if you are inclined to rethink your biases, you’d be well served to start with the Kung Pao Chicken ($11, or $8.50 as a combination dinner) at Yang’s Chinese Restaurant in Woodbury.

Yang’s is a curious mash-up of suburban strip mall cafe and classic, nostalgia-inducing Chinese-American restaurant. It’s the kind of place where your grandmother would know exactly what to order, where a tattooed waitress with a beehive hairdo wearing cat’s-eye glasses serves chow mein and egg foo young beneath Chinese-style light fixtures and Asian-patterned drop-ceiling tiles. On a recent balmy winter lunch hour, it was packed with the fork-wielding masses (you have to ask for chopsticks), every zodiac placemat covered with familiar dishes.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

We took a good tour around the menu, and everyone at the table agreed that the kung pao chicken was by far the standout. To give credit where credit is due, a knowing tipster told us this is what we needed to try, and those who failed to heed that advice were green with food envy. It’s a simple but delicious dish: chicken, plentiful green onions, and peanuts, wok-fried in a sweet and salty sauce flavored with garlic, ginger and pepper in the Szechuan style, with bits of chili throughout. At spice level 3 of 5 it was quite mild, so this is not a place to be afraid to climb a rung or two higher up the spice ladder than you normally might. Ordered as part of a combo, the dish is preceded by the soup of your choice (wonton or sweet and sour) and served with fried rice and an eggroll. The eggroll and fried rice were forgettable, so for your money, skip the combo and get the straight dish.

Yang’s Chinese Restaurant, 1568 Woodlane Dr, Woodbury, MN 55125; 651.731.5459

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Little Szechuan Hot Pot

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

We’ve had a long love affair with Little Szechuan. Even during head-scratching stretches of inconsistency, we remained true to the St. Paul institution. We just couldn’t stay away from the spicy peanut noodles, fiery soups, savory meats, fried fish, sweet and salty vegetables, and crispy tofu. The service was generally good and the atmosphere typically jovial. And how we adored the lazy Susans, spinning round and round during many a family-style feast. When we learned earlier this summer that Little Szechuan was changing to Little Szechuan Hot Pot (that’s right, all hot pot, all the time), we were caught off guard and honestly, felt a bit jilted.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

After a two-month makeover, the restaurant reopened in June, but we didn’t visit until last week because boiling cauldrons of soup didn’t appeal in the sweaty months of summer. The interior hasn’t changed much, but the tables now have inlaid induction burners for firing up the hot pots, and the menu is an intimidating list of items divided into categories: soup base, seafood, meat, mushroom, vegetable, and “tofu and more.” Diners check off one or two soup bases (the hot pot can be split in half) and ingredients for cooking in the boiling liquid. There’s everything from sirloin beef slices and Chinese broccoli to bullfrog and Chinese cruller (fried dough). You can eat the cooked items straight out of the pot (hence servers describe hot pot as “like fondue”) or add them to a bowl of broth for soup, which diners can liven up with an assortment of condiments.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Depending on your perspective, the process of selecting and cooking ingredients, mixing and matching condiments, and keeping ladles from falling into the bubbling broth (a task we failed to master) is good fun or unwelcome labor. While we fall somewhere in the middle of those two positions, we were impressed by the quality of the offerings. The combination of “spicy and fresh” soup bases was first rate. Made with dried peppers, chili oil, and ma la (Szechuan peppercorns that slightly numb the mouth), the “spicy” broth made us sweat and tear up. The “fresh” side, a comforting chicken broth, was a good foil for its devilish counterpart. Of the twenty or so ingredients we sampled, plump oyster mushrooms and vibrant Chinese broccoli were our favorites, with fresh tofu and house dumplings earning honorable mentions. After much experimentation, we settled on an ideal mixture of condiments: cilantro, green onion, salt, and grilled chili and mushroom sauce.

R.I.P. Leeann Chin

Restaurateur Leeann Chin, who founded the eponymous 40-plus restaurant chain of Chinese restaurants, died this week at the age of 77. [via Bring.mn]