I was going to post yet another write-up of a bunch of meals at Grand Szechuan this month but figured they might be getting a bit monotonous*. And so here instead is a writeup of the U of M outpost of Tea House.
Tea House were, I believe, the OG Sichuan pioneer in the Twin Cities—people with actual knowledge of the history of Chinese food in the area should feel free to correct me if this is wrong (we’ve only been here since 2007). When we first got here they were recommended to us when we asked about Sichuan options. We had a meal at their St. Paul location and weren’t overly impressed; and then we found Little Szechuan (which was then coming into its prime) and couldn’t see any reason to make a longer drive. And after Chef Luo opened Grand Szechuan it’s been hard to go anywhere else (though we did like both our meals at Szechuan Spice quite a bit).
However, given both the aforementioned tedium of repeated write-ups of Grand Szechuan and a commenter/Chowhound member, Jim Grinsfelder’s recommendation that we try the U of M location of Tea House, I talked the missus into it. As my parents and sister are currently visiting from India (and they’re very into Sichuan food) it also meant we could order as wide a range of things as we usually do but not risk being stuck with endless leftovers if we didn’t like the food. As it happens, we did not in fact dislike the food but we didn’t also love it.
Before getting to what we ate and why it didn’t make us reconsider our relationship with Grand Szechuan, let me say first that the restaurant is a very nice space—perhaps the fanciest of the Twin Cities Chinese places we’ve been too. So if ambience is a major factor in selecting a Sichuan restaurant for a given meal this is probably the place to go. Of course if, like us, you happen to dine there on an evening when there is an event at the stadium adjoining you’ll also have to put up with a large amount of slow-moving traffic looking for parking. Fortunately, the restaurant has its own parking. Having availed of it, we entered and made the mistake of asking for the large circular table right by the bar. A mistake because a large group of concert-goers descended on the bar for about 30 minutes and were literally sitting and standing on half our group’s heads—thankfully, no one else commandeered the space as we finished our meal.
By the by, I was also amused to note that the bartender had the requisite ironic facial hair of the species as usually not found in Chinese restaurants. Oh and that reminds me, this place also has a fair number of non-Chinese front of house staff—which might also be a consideration if you’re nervous about communication about dishes whose ingredients/composition you’re not sure about. We did also have a happy surprise as another member of the waitstaff came up and greeted us happily: he had been at Little Szechuan and then Grand Szechuan and we’d been wondering where he’d disappeared to for about a year or so now.
What we ate (see the slideshow below for pictures):
I wanted to get mostly standard dishes so we could compare them to versions elsewhere and also a couple of things more unique to them:
- Dan Dan Noodles: Never seen them served with bok choy before but these were fine. More heat by default than at Grand Szechuan
- Szechuan Dumplings: The dumplings themselves were fine but the sauce had too much soy sauce in it and was also too sweet for my taste.
- Winter Melon and Pork Rib Soup: This was scrawled on a “specials” board. This divided the table: some thought it was too bland; I was in the group that thought it was nice and delicate.
- Szechuan Green Beans: Very nice.
- Ma Po Tofu: This was just okay, we thought. The tofu was cut too large and was a little firmer than we like: there was none of the slithery merger of the tofu and the sauce that is a big part of the pleasure of the dish for me. Also, it was quite light on the ma la/numbing flavour.
- Sole Fillet with Scallion: From the picture it looked like it might be their version of one of our favourite mild, off-menu items at Grand Szechuan but what showed up was fish (nicely cooked) in a much browner and sweeter sauce.
- Chestnut Chicken: Chicken on the bone (and some of the bones were very small) in a sweet’ish sauce heavily redolent of star anise. I quite liked it.
- Pork in Garlic Sauce: Not very garlicky but with a nice sweet-sour flavour; the sweetness here was nicely balanced by both the sour and a creeping heat.
- Dong Po Pork Hock: We’re suckers for pork hock and so the only choice was whether to go for the spicy or non-spicy option. We went for spicy and, while the pork was perfectly cooked, we couldn’t get the dynamite version at Chengdu Taste in the SGV out of our heads: this was a few levels below that.
More thoughts on the food and the rest of the experience below the slideshow.
So, as you might have figured out from the brief comments above, we didn’t think anything was bad, but we did find some things to be a little too sweet. As to whether this is because the restaurant just cooks in this style (at least in the dishes we ordered) or because they’re pandering a bit to stereotypical Minnesotan palates, I don’t know. (It should be noted, of course, that Grand Szechuan’s clientele is also overwhelming non-Asian and yet their Szechuan menu is generally uncompromising). I don’t mean to suggest that the food was missing heat: we didn’t ask for anything to be extra spicy and nothing that should have been hot was close to being mild (though as noted, some dishes were light on the Sichuan peppercorn). Their Sichuan selections are also far more limited compared to those at both Grand Szechuan and Little Szechuan (though more extensive than Szechuan Spice’s).
On the whole, nothing we ate made us think that we had to come here to eat it again (and it is 20 minutes further away from us than Grand Szechuan). And frankly, if in Minneapolis I’d probably go to Szechuan Spice. That said, I’d be happy to eat here again if a group I was with insisted or if we had another engagement in the vicinity. And I am interested in trying their interesting looking sub-menu of noodle dishes that we didn’t dip into on this occasion.
Oh yes, service was attentive and good. The bill came to $140 with tax and tip (no drinks). Seven adults could probably have eaten what we ate (plus the little we took home), so it’s really $20/head, which is a very good deal in the general scheme of things; it did seem higher than we pay for similar things that we like more at Grand Szechuan. Then again, rent is probably higher where they are than in Bloomington.
On the whole, then, I’d recommend with some caveats.
*I do actually have another Grand Szechuan write-up more or less ready to go but I think I’ll hold off for a while. Even though this meal didn’t thrill me it did move me to also want to go check out Szechuan in Roseville, a place that I received some ho-hum reports about some years ago and so never bothered eating at. I haven’t actually been yet but might do so before my parents leave town.