The wildly popular, wildly famous Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York began in an old-school Chinese restaurant.
It was the kind of place that every American has been to at least once, if not a hundred times. Vaguely Asian-style brush font was splashed across the signage; a cash register sat right up front, with a bowl full of free, cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies on the counter.
Danny Bowien had no idea how to run a restaurant, nor where he was going to do it, so he just approached a Chinese place in the Mission District of San Francisco, and said something like, “Can I serve food out of here when you’re not busy? We promise to stay out of your way and give you a cut of the cash.”
The owners agreed. Bowien and his crew hung a Chinese dragon up on the ceiling and twinkle lights in the windows and started cooking their interpretation of Chinese, infused with a lot of spice and badassery. The rest is Chinese food history. Bowien’s Mission Chinese was a sensation, one that turned into a book and then an empire. He changed the way the new generation thought about beef with broccoli and Kung Pao chicken. The story was inspiration for thousands of young chefs around America.
Bunbob Chhun and James Munson were two of them.
In their University of Minnesota dorm room at night, the duo wanted what every college kid wants: Chinese takeout. But Chhun and Munson did not want the Chinese takeout of yore with the frozen egg rolls and otherworldly pink pork product in the fried rice. They wanted something fresher. They wanted their favorites without the mystery meat.
Meanwhile, Ming’s Palace occupied the corner of East 40th Street and Minnehaha Avenue in Longfellow for 20 years. Perry and Meimi Wong opened it after closing another Chinese restaurant, House of Lai in Deephaven. It was Perry’s dream to have the restaurant, and the rest of the family fell in line to help out, as was expected.
“We just worked, and didn’t complain about it too much,” says Vanessa Wong, oldest daughter of Perry and Meimi. While she worked at Ming’s for “almost half” of her life, the day Chhun came knocking was a major blessing for the family.
Vanessa remembers it well. “I was having lunch with my mom and [Chhun] came in and said he was looking for a restaurant to lease. I told him it was very hard in this neighborhood. That it was mostly retail and very few restaurants.”
After he left, Vanessa told her mother what Chhun had asked.
“Why didn’t you tell him this place?!” her mother wanted to know. After decades running the kitchen, it was time for the Wongs to retire.
The rest happened quickly. Chhun and Munson signed the lease (the Wongs owned the building but didn’t know what they planned to do with it without a restaurant), and soon, the old lunch buffet was being moved to make room for a shiny new bar; the pink walls were being updated with arty bamboo-patterned wallpaper.
“People were very sad,” says Vanessa. “Some people cried.” But Perry and Meimi had taken only one vacation in 20 years. Besides, the people of Longfellow didn’t have to cry for long because: Dumpling.
These transitions are not always easy. The occasional old regular, caught unaware, will sometimes plop down and order a shrimp fried rice. Dumpling doesn’t do home delivery, as the Wong children did, loyally jumping in the car and dropping off grease-dappled bags of wings, sesame chicken, and chow mein to about 30 different households on a busy night shift while their parents cooked.
Dumpling does things differently. But — and this is important — not too differently.
The pink glow from a chic neon window sign sets the tone for the urbane neighborhood spot. Walk in on any given night, and the bartender will be mixing up low-proof cocktails (the neighborhood zoning means only beer and wine) like a Mei Mei’s Collins with sake, snap peas, lime, and Squirt. The bathrooms are wallpapered with cheeky, artist-rendered fruits and vegetables. There is a cauliflower steak on the menu.
Okay, so there may be a cauliflower steak, but Dumpling is still a neighborhood Chinese restaurant through and through. If you have an itch for some good old Cantonese takeout, they can scratch it for you here.
Eggrolls are Chhun’s family recipe, gold, crisp, tight little two-or-three bite flutes filled with ground pork, carrot, onion, and mung bean thread. “Very simple,” he says, but all the flash is in the elbow grease. “It can be a process,” he says. The popular bite arrives five to an order for $7.
Or try their namesake dumplings, also handmade and outstanding, and available in pork, vegetable, and the occasional seasonal flavor like winter melon. These too are understated: The ideal, bite-sized little coin purse is seared to precision on one side, never over- or under-stuffed or broken. They’re miniature labors of love that you feel lucky to be able to eat.
The “old-school Asian vibe” was their dream, say the partners, and they never want to alienate the neighborhood with too many new-school flourishes. So guess what? Here you can still get sesame chicken, orange shrimp, and even Ming’s Wings, the same beloved recipe the Wongs sold thousands of orders of. The family lovingly passed them on to Dumpling along with the keys. Perry also sometimes drops by the kitchen to school them on proper lo mien.
But here, orange sauce uses real orange and chicken is cooked gently, to an almost forkable tenderness. Dishes are thoughtfully deconstructed, not to be ironic, but because it makes sense. The inherent deep-fried crispness of sweet and sour shrimp is too often ruined once tossed in the sticky sauce. Why not just put the sauce off to the side in a ramekin, and cook the peas and carrots separately so they retain their springy freshness? Done.
Occasionally Dumpling veers too far off course. An Asian take on classic beef stroganoff didn’t improve or even stand up to the classic with its lack of sauce or broth. And the beef and broccoli with flank steak and gai lan (Chinese broccoli) ate like little more than a plain steak with a side of green veg and rice. In an effort to keep the meat on the rare side, it arrived too underdone.
But these slight misses are all forgiven when diving into the elegant wonton noodle soup, with clear, fragrant broth, dainty handmade chicken wontons, and slim Hong Kong noodles swirling under the surface. It’s herbal, understated, and pure-tasting, the kind of thing you always wished you could get at your corner Chinese joint.
And now you can.
4004 Minnehaha Ave. S., Minneapolis
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