During an episode of The Next Food Network Star, Good Eats host Alton Brown challenged two finalists with what should have been a couple of puffball questions: "What's the difference between white and green asparagus?" and "What's harissa?" The two finalists to whom these questions were tossed had not a clue.
Maybe it's time to require all aspiring restaurant critics, bloggers, and food personalities to take a national credentialing exam–sort of a bar exam for budding arbiters of taste. They do it for wine experts, so why not for gourmets? Imagine what fun it would be to structure such an exam. During a recent outing to the previously unheard-of (at least to me) Red Moon Chinese Cafe in Eden Prairie, one such SAT-style teaser came to mind: Chinese restaurants are to strip malls as (fill in the blank). The answer "Starbucks stores are to city blocks" would be considered barely passing.
Chinese restaurants are as pervasive as leaves on an autumn lawn, and since most invest little in signage, it's all but impossible to have the slightest inkling about what is inside. That's certainly the case with this little non-descript gem in the shadow of nearby Eden Prairie Center. As it turns out, chef-owner Tin Tat Kwan has been preparing Chinese food for some 40 years; how he's managed to remain off the radar is a puzzler.
Based on our sampling of a handful of dishes, there's no question that Kwan can cook. And he's about as charming and interesting a host as you'll find. The best approach here is to ask chef Kwan to come to your table to discuss exactly what you enjoy. Do you like spicy or mainstream? Do you prefer healthy items over fried foods? Depending on your feedback, he'll do his best to craft something that will suit your fancy.
The extensive menu has a decidedly Cantonese orientation that includes the usual assortment of sweet 'n' sour, foo yung, and fried rice. There are also several throwback chow mein options, including a rendition of the classic Minnesota favorite made from ground pork, chopped celery and onions, and bits of chicken. While chow mein isn't a personal favoritendash;and I'd recommend ordering the fried noodles on the side so they don't turn soggy under the toppingndash;this slightly sweet, thick-sauced version is solidly prepared and would absolutely satisfy anyone who pines for the Nankin standard.
Standout honors go to the Hainan Island solendash;strips of panko- and coconut-crusted fish are flash fried and served in a bowl atop a harvest mixture of curried vegetables. On our visit, the seafood was so fresh and light it almost could have passed for chicken. Another highly enjoyable selection, the chicken with green beans, represents classic yin and yang with a stir-fry of tender fowl and thick, just-picked beans in a pleasant hoisin gravy. Our order of sesame beef could have benefited from just a bit more kick, but otherwise the battered and fried morsels of meat were melt-in-the-mouth tender. A sampling of the yee shiang porkndash;a mÃ©lange of shredded pork with vegetables and pea pods in a disappointingly tame and forgettable saucendash;was the only real dud of the visit.
From the appealing appetizer list, I could easily compose a meal of nibbles. The potstickers, filled with an exemplary meat mixture and lightly fried to a crisp on both sides, are excellent and an easier eating size than most. The wontons, also a treat, aren't the commonplace pretenders filled with cream cheese but the increasingly hard-to-find ground meat-stuffed alternative. The skins are about as good as they come. We also happily scarfed up the five-spice fried chicken wings, which are succulent, non-greasy, and suffused with flavor. Our cheerful waitress gave as good as she got; my only criticism is that she somehow managed to ignore my repeated requests to stagger delivery of the dishes.
With Szechuan and Mandarin rapidly becoming the new Chinese, it's kind of a kick to find a place where Cantonese reigns supreme. Red Moon is definitely a southern suburb standout.
Where to Find It
Red Moon Chinese Cafe: 582 Prairie Center Dr., Eden Prairie, 952-941-6556, RedMoonChineseCafe.com