What's the most popular ethnic chow in Southeast Minnesota? Not counting pizza?
Though Mexican is catching up, the answer is far and away Chinese. By my count, there are more than 35 Chinese restaurants in the area, some just takeout or fast-food shops, but most with enormous menus, bottles of Tsingtao beer and table service.
Add in a few Vietnamese cafes, a theatrical Japanese steakhouse and some crossover, "world food" places like Noodles & Co., and Asian cuisine is pretty well represented here. Sure, we could use some Thai and Cambodian options, but be patient. As my fortune cookie advised the other day, "Happy life is just ahead of you."
The big challenge for Asian restaurants is to distinguish themselves from all the mediocre Chinese food out there. Maybe it's the take-out and all-you-can-eat orientation of some restaurants, but a lot of the dishes I tried this month were bland, mushy and unappealing. The menus may be gigantic, but variety and distinctiveness were often missing.
I won't name those names, but if you're looking for interesting, fresh, authentic Chinese cooking, read on.
The Hunan Gardenin Rochester, which has had good luck for a quarter-century, is a good example of a restaurant with high aspirations. Another is the Fresh Wok, on Broadway in Plainview, where the dining room is elegantly put together — no faded-out photos of the Great Wall or gaudy red paper lanterns to be seen — and they feature hot, fresh food with great aromas and flavors.
Here's what I was looking for in awesome Asian entrees:
• Something special:Out-of-the-ordinary, distinctive dishes that smack of authenticity. We asked at each restaurant, "Tell us what you're most known for," and that's what we sampled.
• Fresh ingredients, served hot:The latter disqualified more than a few dishes along the way — hot food seems like the very basic ticket of admission, but a few plates came out to us lukewarm at best. Fresh, home-cut vegetables and meats also make the difference.
• Presentation and ambiance:Some restaurants we sampled had heaps of generous portions, though not always served in the most appetizing ways. A few restaurants, such as the Fresh Wok in Plainview, pay more attention to the design and attractiveness of both the dining room and the food, and it pays off.
• Knowledgeable servers:Especially when scanning a menu with hundreds of selections with mystifying foreign names, it helps to have servers who can answer your questions. At several places, it was tough to break the language barrier.
• Sit-down service and no buffets:This rules out some popular restaurants such as HuHot Mongolian Grillat Apache Mall, but it's tough to compare buffet food with specials served straight from the kitchen. (HuHot, it must be said, has a great formula — a vast array of healthy, fresh veggies and meats, stir-fried on a massive griddle that's fascinating for kids.)
• No MSG:That's a joke! But by and large, most make clear that they don't use MSG.
Notable places that didn't make the short list this time include Wong's Cafein Hillcrest Shopping Center, a popular lunch stop; Jenpachi Japanese Steakhouse, which is always packed and has some amazingly talented guys wielding knives and spatulas at the performance grills; and Tony 's Vietnamese Restauranton North Broadway.
Agree or disagree? Have other favorites? Send a note and we'll get it on the record a week from today in the Four Stars Feedback column. Nobody's perfect, and I certainly didn't sample every Chinese restaurant in the area.
Also, for March I'm looking for recommendations on the best beer-battered fish dinner in the Rochester area — classic bar-and-grill type fish dinners with fries and slaw. Friday fish fries in church basements don't qualify, by the way; to keep this fair, it has to be a regular menu option.
Restaurants that get our Four Stars recommendations receive a certificate extremely suitable for framing and a firm handshake from yours truly.