Twin Cities Dim Sum (Yangtze Mostly)

The few Twin Citizens who read all my local food/restaurant write-ups are doubtless sick of my moaning endlessly about the general quality of Asian food in the area. I’m sure I come off like a poseur who wants everyone to know that he knows better than everyone else; or, worse, like an insufferable jerk who wants people to feel bad about what they enjoy. Now I don’t deny that I am an annoying bastard (see the title of this blog) but my version of events is that a) when it comes to most Asian cuisines I have a frame of reference (a decade in Los Angeles and regular visits every year since) against which almost everything in Minnesota pales*, and which I am not willing to let go of to make my gastronomic life here seem better than it is; and b) I do want things to get better and hope they can, and I don’t think overpraising the mediocre or muting criticism is going to get us there. Please bear in mind that I do not have this attitude towards our fine dining scene. We now have a number of restaurants in that genre that would be competitive even in the major metros. But this is just not true when it comes to Asian food.

We have two Thai restaurants that are quite good on their day (On’s Kitchen, Bangkok Thai Deli) and a large number that are mediocre at best. We have acceptable if entirely predictable Vietnamese food. We have sub-standard Korean food. Ditto for Japanese. We have more decent Sichuan options than we can probably expect but even the best of these (Grand Szechuan) would be second-tier in Los Angeles or New York on their best day. We have no other regional Chinese food worth mentioning.

And our dim sum situation is rather sad as well. Of the three viable options that were around when we got to Minnesota in 2007, Jun Bo has closed, leaving Mandarin Kitchen and Yangtze as the choices. Which, if you’ve eaten a lot of Dim Sum in places with large Chinese populations, is not the happiest state of affairs.

Now you wouldn’t think this if you went by the local reviews. See, for example, this recent glowing report by the usually reliable Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl**. I’m sorry to say it but the Twin Cities dim sum scene does not deserve high praise and Mandarin Kitchen, which gets a lot of that high praise in that write-up, is just not very good. (See also this very positive review of Mandarin Kitchen from a couple who are promoting “Ethnic Eats” in the Twin Cities.) Unreliable as such evidence is, I offer the following representative pictures to support my case. They were all taken during the heart of Saturday morning service. Click on a thumbnail if you dare:

Mandarin Kitchen: Look at how flabby these chicken feet are. They've been overcooked to the point that the skin is slipping off the bones on the plate itself.Mandarin Kitchen: The sticky rice meanwhile is not very sticky; you can actually see the grains separating from each other as in pulao.Mandarin Kitchen: And I think you can tell from this picture how doughy this salt and pepper squid is.Now, as I’ve acknowledged and said in other places, I do get that in smaller cities the food writers are generally closer to the sportswriters in their orientation (“go home team!”) than to cultural critics; but Moskowitz Grumdahl, in general, can be quite critical in her reviews of fine dining restaurants. I’m not sure if she just doesn’t have the same kind of frame of reference when it comes to dim sum–she does make reference to dim sum experiences in San Francisco and New York; or perhaps she, like some of my friends who should really know better, is operating on a principle analogous to Dr. Johnson’s observation that what is remarkable of a dog walking on its hind legs is not that it is done well well but that it is done at all.

Now if you live in the Twin Cities and like Mandarin Kitchen you will remind me that it is always crammed for dim sum on weekends. My flip response is that so is Olive Garden for Italian food. My real response, however, is that without passing judgment on the tastes of hundreds of strangers I will note that sometimes C+/B- dim sum is better than no dim sum at all, and if you’ve not had better dim sum it may seem better than it is; however, if you have had much better there is no reason to behave like it is B+/A- dim sum.

There is however reliable B dim sum in the Cities and that’s at Yangtze in St. Louis Park. Alas, as we live one hour south of the cities it is a bit of a hike for us, and, like Mandarin Kitchen, the cost is way out of proportion to the quality; and so unless we have guests in town, or friends who really want to go, or we’re a long way away from our last/next L.A trip we tend to not go there very often either. As it happens, my parents are currently visiting from Delhi (the dim sum options there make Mandarin Kitchen seem like one of the better Hong Kong houses) and as they’re big fans of any kind of dim sum at all we always take them to Yangtze. So it was last weekend. Please click on a thumbnail to launch a slideshow and read descriptions of what we ate.

(By the way, Yangtze is also usually very crowded for dim sum. If you arrive before 11, however, you have a very good chance of not waiting very long at all; and at any time if you have a group of eight or more you can reserve a table and just walk in.)

Though not pictured we also ate some congee, which was okay. All of this with tip came to $136 which is just way too much for the quality. I get that given demographics dim sum in Minnesota is not going to be as good as dim sum in Southern California; but it pisses me off that we have to pay a third as more as we would for much better quality in L.A.

Anyway, this was a decent meal. On the whole, I’d give it a B. I know from experience that Yangtze can occasionally hit higher notes, but they don’t seem to sustain them either. It’s possible, I suppose, that unless demographics change this is the best dim sum we’re going to get here (though I will note that Grand Szechuan gives us far better and far more esoteric Sichuan food while catering to the same demographics). However, I don’t know if we can expect any better if we are already telling each other and convincing ourselves that the scene is so much better than it is.


*And, of course, the L.A/SGV scene pales in comparison to Hong Kong. A famous Hong Kong dim sum chef opined on Sea Harbour–which, along with Elite, is at the top of the SGV scene–last year that it would be a decent neighbourhood place in Hong Kong. By the by, I see that I have somehow failed to write up a single one of our meals at Sea Harbour. Must remedy that when I’m in L.A in early August!

**Moskowitz Grumdahl is a beloved alumna of my place of employment and so I follow her work with interest.

7 thoughts on “Twin Cities Dim Sum (Yangtze Mostly)

  1. You’re far too harsh on the dim sum. As an ethnic Chinese who grew up in New York, met my wife in San Francisco and spent time in Hong Kong last year, Mandarin Kitchen measures up quite well. It so happens that my wife and I tried Yangtze this morning. The dim sum has improved significantly since we first moved to Minneapolis (my daughters both cried when they first saw the dim sum), but it does not measure up to Mandarin Kitchen. That’s quite a shame since I was looking for an alternative. We used to go to Wanderer’s Garden, which seems to have closed.

    Note that many of your pictures, including the baked shrimp, the seaweed salad, the Chinese broccoli, most of the pan fried dumplings, etc., are not, in fact, dim sum. Their tripe and turnip cake, two high rigor tests for any dim sum chef, lacked both flavor and texture. The skin on the spring roll was so thick that it could have been machine made. The filling, ground shrimp, is not authentic. Pork ribs were overly fatty, but not flavorful. Chicken feet had okay texture, but nothing in the flavor was memorable. The chef had a heavy hand with the salt container, but that was the only memorable flavor. The bill for two of us this morning was $50 (including tip), about $10 more than Mandarin Kitchen.

    Note that I have no fiduciary relationship with any of the establishment mentioned, W.

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  2. To expand a little on my previous comment:

    I have no difficulty believing that you had a subpar meal at Yangtze. As I said, I don’t think it’s particularly good in the abstract. You can gauge my enthusiasm for the things pictured from the captions—the tripe was pretty good though, perhaps because we got it freshly steamed: variability of freshness/texture for things like tripe is always a problem at cart dim sum places. Similarly, I can believe that Mandarin Kitchen can produce better food than what we got at our last meal, but that meal was so atrocious there’s precious little chance of our returning to confirm.

    I am very surprised to hear, however, that you think Mandarin Kitchen compares to the better places in San Francisco and New York, leave alone Hong Kong. I haven’t eaten dim sum in either city for many years now but the standards must have dropped dramatically for this to be true. Certainly, neither Mandarin Kitchen nor Yangtze are as good as the second-tier places in the San Gabriel Valley, leave alone the top places. Now if you were to say to me that you’ve eaten at the best places in the SGV and think Mandarin Kitchen compares well to them (which seems to be implied by your suggestion that it compares well to Hong Kong dim sum houses) then it seems likely that our frames of reference are so far apart that it is unlikely we’ll agree.

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    • Nothing I wrote suggested a comparison with the best restaurants in San Francisco and New York. It’s certainly not reasonable to compare a city of 400,000 homebodies with 8,000,000 NYers, or with the center of the Cantonese diaspora in SF. However, Mandarin Kitchen does match up very well with many dim sum houses on Clement Street in SF and in Flushing, NY.

      The same comparison could be said for Italian, French and Brazilian cuisines. The Minneapolis versions can’t compare with the best of New York and San Francisco, but that’s a long way of saying the local quality is poor. It’s not the best, far from it, but it’s more than adequate. For example, I’ve systematically gone through every single dim sum house in Chicago and have yet to find a reason to revisit any.

      I hope that the cuisine at Yangtze will improve. What I tasted this morning was not due to vagaries of the steam carts, although that is the responsibility of the dim sum house. What disappointed me was the lack of flavor. Then there are those deep fried shrimp balls, which are as Chinese as fortune cookies.

      I’m not trying to change your opinion, but rather to provide a diverse perspective.

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      • Well, okay, if the point of your comparison is to say that Mandarin Kitchen (and Yangtze) matches up very well with the less good dim sum options in San Francisco and New York, then sure. There are plenty of mediocre dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley as well, and I’m sure in Hong Kong and the rest of China too. But that doesn’t mean these places here should be talked about as being better than they are—which is the aspect of their coverage that I am pushing back against. The tone of some of the coverage here is “our dim sum options are as good as they are anywhere”, which is just not true. And there’s no reason it can’t be better. As I note, our Sichuan options turn out better examples of Sichuan food than our dim sum houses do of dim sum.

        And I do appreciate the diverse perspective.

        (Those deep fried shrimp balls—or crab in this case—are pretty standard issue at dim sum houses even in places with large Chinese populations, by the way. And, not that I particularly care for these crab balls, there’s a lot of other nouveau dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley these days, and I’m told in Hong Kong too.)

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  3. MAO – THANK YOU for pointing us in the direction of Yangtze for dim sum. Missus and I thoroughly enjoyed the food and atmosphere. Place was full of Asians, so we knew we were in the right place, and everything is fresh out of the kitchen with the constant turnover.

    A couple tips: they didn’t tell us, but gratuity is included – which makes sense. I happened to overhear a customer saying this at the counter. ($52 for – I think – eight items, and a round of Tsing Tao, is pretty reasonable, and we still had items to take home). Second, grab the white, single sheet, dim sum to-go menu at the counter before sitting down; that way you won’t have a table full of plates before first ordering specific items you don’t want to miss out on. (i.e.steamed BBQ pork buns!)

    We’ll be back. And, some day, one far, far away day, try out your Hong Kong recommendations too.

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