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Tea House

By Lavender July 2, 2010

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Offers Most Authentic Szechuan Menu Locally

Normally, when old-world cuisine arrives at a new-world kitchen, something is lost in translation. The ingredients aren’t quite the same, or if they are, the locals might not appreciate them, so adjustments are made. By now, most of our Chinese restaurants have a menu as American as it is Chinese, and I am as happy as the next person to celebrate the fusion. But if you really want Chinese food here, it can be a challenge—that is, if you haven’t been introduced to the Tea House.

Eggplant in Garlic Sauce; Szechuan Dumplings in Chili Oil. Photos by Hubert Bonnet

Its new location at 2425 University Avenue SE, Minneapolis, near the University of Minnesota, offers the most authentic Szechuan menu you’ll find in the area. The Tea House brand is known for its Szechuan offerings, but each location (Downtown Minneapolis, Plymouth, St. Paul, and the U of M) presents a slightly different menu and feel. At the latter, the decor is imported from China, from the kissing booth curtains to the Chinese character art. However, do not expect thematic kitsch—the artwork is echoed on the other side of the earth, as the owners also have a successful restaurant in Beijing.

On your first visit, order from the appetizer list. It’s the best way to sample as many different tastes as possible, and each one presents a new revelation. Crispy Cucumber Tossed in Chili Oil ($7.95) entirely changed my view of the vegetable. I knew cucumber could be refreshing, but I did not realize it could warm the soul so. Spicy Bamboo Tips ($7.95) thrill with a nice, slow burn that enhances each flavor without dominating the dish. Chicken in Sesame Sauce ($8.50), surprisingly dark and rich, is another must-try.

The kitchen having earned your trust, you must proceed to Beef Tendon with Peppercorn ($8.50). If you cannot in good conscience say “tendon” in a restaurant, close the menu, take a deep breath, and ask for the appetizer that Lavender raved about. It tastes a little bit like lean beef and artisan potato chips merged, then spent their short lives splashing around in hot, spicy oil. If that description boosts your confidence, perhaps you’ll forgive its crassness. Now that you’ve proven your mettle with the tendon, proceed to Sliced Beef in Spicy Sauce ($8.95), which features tripe and stomach—yes, it is superb.

If you require liquid courage, the admittedly heavy-handed bartender mixes the finest nontraditional mojito I ever tasted. Blueberry Mojito ($9) is a potent, smooth little wonder: fat, dark blueberries muddled with mint soothe the tongue between Szechuan bites, with a healthy kick from Stoli Blueberi to keep things interesting. Chinese Martini ($10) is gin-based, combined with champagne and fresh lime juice to smooth the finish. Asian Pear Martini ($10), which mixes Absolut Pear, simple syrup, and sake, is the sweetest of the bunch.

The Tea House also has a thorough wine and sake list. We sipped a flight of Ichishima ($10/$19/$48), served at varying temperatures. Sake has a rather incredible response to temperature. In this case, the gentle Ichishima releases its sweetness when warmed. The wine list is designed to accommodate a spicy menu—the sweet and citrusy Riesling ($21) and the low-tannin Barbera ($9/$34) were both up to the task, even at our spice-happy table.

The next few dishes included flavorful Szechuan dumplings ($6.25), which are oh so lovely topped with fresh garlic; the delicately-fried Scallion Pancakes ($4.50); and the famous Juicy Buns ($7.95). Word has spread about the buns, and it’s no wonder—pork filling is steamed inside housemade dough to create its own juice. Eating a delicate bun is an art, so ask your server for instructions if you haven’t had the pleasure yet.

If you still have room for an entrée, Pan Fried Pork Belly ($12.95) is what manager David Harvey lovingly has nicknamed “Chinese bacon.” We also sampled Chung King Spicy Chicken ($12.95); assertive House Beef in Szechuan Spicy Sauce ($13.95); and moist, salty Tea Smoked Duck ($14.95). Tender Eggplant in Garlic Sauce ($11.95) and silky Ma Pa Tofu ($11.95) are among the 20 vegetarian items on the menu.

If you take my advice, and fill up on appetizers, you must return to Tea House to give the entrées their due. I am left as a writer how I was as a diner—with no room left to do them justice.

Desserts will be appearing on the menu shortly, although a fragrant Jasmine Tea suited me perfectly. But on your first visit to the Tea House, celebrate the experience with sparkling Hou Hou Shu sake ($16 for two glasses). After all, it’s not every day that you really get to taste something so fabulously different without packing a bag.

Tea House
2425 University Ave. SE, Mpls.
(612) 331-8866
www.ourteahouse.com

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