My views on dim sum in the Twin Cities have never been popular. Many people here say that the dim sum scene in the Twin Cities is very good. In this they are supported by members of the local food media. Exhibit A for this position is Mandarin Kitchen in Bloomington, a restaurant whose dim sum selection has recently been described by one critic who dislikes me intensely as “dizzying, dazzling”. Alas, our opinion—the missus and mine—has always been that Mandarin Kitchen is in fact the worst of a ho-hum lot. We liked Jun Bo in Richfield better (before it closed) and still prefer Yangtze in St. Louis Park and the far less written about A&L Chinese in Inver Grove Heights. However, our last meal at Mandarin Kitchen was some years ago. That meal was so bad we’d sworn to never go back; but my parents are in town again and they always want to go to dim sum and Mandarin Kitchen is the most conveniently located of all dim sum houses for us. And so we decided to go back and see if things have improved. Here are our findings.
As the lines at Mandarin Kitchen get long on weekends—they do not do dim sum on weekdays or take reservations—we resolved to get there before they opened. We arrived at 9.25 on a Saturday morning and found a goodly line already in place. It’s a large restaurant though and everyone in line got a table when they opened at 9.30—the wait backed up shortly thereafter. We were a party of six and were seated in one of two smaller dining rooms in the back. We sat down, asked for water and tea and got to work.
Mandarin Kitchen—like Yangtze—does cart dim sum and they were clearly fully ready for service when they opened. Carts loaded with different kinds of dumplings etc. trundled by us on the regular and so the good news is we got very freshly made versions of everything. The bad news? It wasn’t very good anyway. What were the problems? Well, let me offer some pictorial evidence of poor execution. Alongside (and in the slideshow below) you can see images of shoddily made dumplings. A number of them had perforations and/or fell apart when picked up with chopsticks. The pan-fried dumplings were a particular embarrassment. What’s less visible in the pictures is the quality of the dumpling skins: the hargow were dense and chewy; the chiu chow dumplings were gloppy rather than glutinous; the chicken feet were flabby. Likewise, the sticky rice was overcooked and hard; the steamed rice noodle rolls were congealed rather than slippery.
These are some of the baseline markers of dim sum quality and Mandarin Kitchen failed utterly. Please keep in mind that as a party of six we got two orders of all the dumplings—so it’s not like we somehow lucked into the one bad steamer of everything we ate. And please also note that I’m not complaining about hard to quantify issues of taste—I would hope that even the most gung ho booster of the local food scene can see the problems of execution in the pictures here. And this is not a nit-picky thing. Dim sum, especially in the case of steamed dumplings, is all about delicacy of execution; texture is as important as flavour. Thick, rubbery or otherwise incompetent dumpling wrappers cannot be compensated for by the taste of the fillings.
Now, not everything was this problematic. Among the steamed dishes the shiumai—both the pork and the pork/shrimp versions—were better than we’d encountered on our last visit (though still over-steamed), and the shrimp and chive dumplings were acceptable, Three things rose into the level of the good: the steamed gailan, the deep-fried whole shrimp and the sweet red bean paste dumplings (though these were still too greasy). If you keep score you’ll see that’s three out of fourteen dishes that we would have described as good and six out of fourteen that we would have described as decent.
And this was at the start of service on a Saturday morning. No place that makes dumplings of this quality could survive more than a few weeks in any city with a mature dim sum scene and yet people insist that Mandarin Kitchen is evidence that dim sum in the Twin Cities is as good as dim sum anywhere. Recently on a Facebook group one person said with a straight face that she has eaten dim sum all over the world and believes Mandarin Kitchen is better than anything outside Hong Kong….
So why do people continue to rave about Mandarin Kitchen and Twin Cities dim sum more generally? For thoughts on this that you are sure to find endearing please scroll down after looking at the slideshow below.
So, again, why do people insist that this is very good dim sum and why are there queues at Mandarin Kitchen every weekend? For one thing, eating dumplings of any quality is fun. Beyond that I think the answers vary depending on who you’re referring to. I think for some people there just isn’t a frame of reference that can help place things in perspective. If the only dim sum you know is C+/B- dim sum then it may appear to be A-/A dim sum. This is especially the case when critics, who should know better, act as boosters and insist that things are better than they are—it seems to me that too many of our local professional critics are more wedded to making inflated claims for the local dining scene than they are to critically evaluating it. And I insist that it is absolutely not the case that we cannot expect anything better in the Twin Cities. As I’ve said before, we have very creditable Sichuan food in the Twin Cities and a number of very good Thai restaurants. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have better dim sum as well. But we’re not going to get it until we ask for it.
Back to this meal: I will say that service was very good (friendly and on top of things). How much did it cost? $127.38 with tax and included tip plus a credit card surcharge (the justification for which escapes me). So about $21/head (with two of those heads belonging to two small children). Not crazy expensive in the abstract but just a little bit below our lunch at Lunasia in the San Gabriel Valley in January—and that meal blew this out of the water (and Lunasia is not even in the top tier of the SGV dim sum scene).
Anyway. I think we are not likely to go back to Mandarin Kitchen anytime soon. Though if we do go back at some point we will once again go early on a Saturday. Somehow the whole experience stings less when you haven’t had to wait 1-1.5 hours for sub-standard dim sum. My parents are here for another few weeks and if they want to eat dim sum again we’ll probably trek out to A&L again—it’s been a year and a half since we’ve last been there. It’s nothing amazing either but our meals there have all been better than our meals at Mandarin Kitchen.
Next up from the Twin Cities: another plug for Golden Horseshoe, which will unfortunately be ending its run a month earlier than originally planned. And then returns to Montreal and the North Shore.