When did mankind first discover brunch? Of course there’s no good way to answer that, though I can picture our distant ancestors making time on the weekends to hop down from the trees and whip up a bit of hollandaise using seagull eggs and a twig.
No imagination is needed to find the history of the southern Chinese way of brunch, because someone wrote it down. Dateline: a thousand years ago. Source: The History of the Tang Dynasty. Speaker: A wife who’s running late. “I haven’t finished putting on my makeup yet, and so I cannot eat. But you should have a little something.” And for a thousand years a little something was had—dumplings, noodles, maybe a little pork ribs if you’re that hungry?
Dim sum grew more elaborate in Hong Kong during the time it was controlled by Great Britain, and it absorbed a good number of European pastry traditions. Oolong tea with a custard tart has been a traditional part of dim sum for a hundred years, and it’s not such a far cry from English cream tea and a custard tart.
Locally, we’ve had a fairly unchanged dim sum scene for more than a decade: Mandarin Kitchen feeds the southern suburbs, Yangtze serves the western suburbs, and Pagoda Dinkytown caters to the University of Minnesota crowd. But the staid dim sum scene got a new jolt of energy in late fall, when the Travail crew opened a dim sum joint, Umami, in north Minneapolis.
Unfortunately, the cooks decided to close Umami before it really got going, shutting the doors just before Christmas. Or so they say now. Something in me wouldn’t be surprised if the dim sum restaurant snaps back to life, somehow. If it does, drop everything for dishes like a poached egg delicately balanced on a savory disk of avocado, given a citrus tang with yuzu where the soft egg and creamy avocado are separated with a crispy barrier of tiny garlic chips. Off to one side there’s a bit of kaffir lime mayonnaise stained with crimson drops of chili oil, and to anchor things a bit more to Japanese culture, a sprinkle of shiso pepper. Rich, lush, surprising, and both logical and delicious at brunch, it took the thousand-plus-year history of dim sum and made it utterly relevant and fresh.
Another brilliant dish was a congee riff in which a base of rice porridge was made richer with cauliflower puree, the blank canvas of the congee made into an abstract expressionist’s explosion of color with scarlet red-pepper emulsion, pale green nests of jewel-like lime segments, dark flourishes of dehydrated kimchi, and emerald whorls of chive oil. I’ve never had congee for which I would drive across town, until that one.
Still, even if Umami’s brief run was too short, it did serve as a wake-up call for this critic—why haven’t I been writing about our great local dim sum spots all the time? After all, dim sum has been a great brunch for a thousand years—and all of the local ones would make an average Sunday historic.
I pulled up in front of Mandarin Kitchen at 9:45 am one bright and cold winter morning and was shocked to find myself a good 75th in line. The line was largely dads staring at smartphones, and when the magical hour of 10 rolled around, 75 matching minivans and SUVs disgorged 75 matching families, and the show was on.
Mandarin Kitchen has our state’s most epic dim sum selection. It seats some 300 people at a time in a series of rooms through which dozens of carts roll by heaped with fresh clams in black bean sauce, pork sausage and sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves, har gow shrimp dumplings, fat cilantro dumplings with the herbs peeking through their translucent skin, pouffy puffy steamed pork buns full of rich gooey barbecued pork, mushrooms stuffed with shrimp paste, long straws of fried pork spring rolls, steamed beef meatballs fragrant with orange and ginger, steamed shumai decorated with caviar, scallion cakes zingy with fresh vegetables, smooth orbs of bun filled with red bean paste, warm and comforting eggy custard tarts—and literally a hundred more things.
The main thing that kept running through my mind as I sat in the enormous dining room: Why don’t we celebrate Mandarin Kitchen as often as we celebrate local stars like Manny’s Steakhouse and Restaurant Alma? It’s as accomplished, it’s as extraordinary, it’s as beloved. If you visit only one dim sum spot, make it this one—and if you can get someone who loves you to stand out in the line in the cold while you wait in the warm car, consider yourself all the luckier. 8766 Lyndale Ave. S., Bloomington, 952-884-5356; dim sum hours 10 am–2 pm Sa–Su
What’s the big difference between Yangtze and Mandarin Kitchen, anyway? For one thing, Yangtze is smaller, cozier, and friendlier in every way—servers and owners are at your elbow to answer any question, and many more dishes come straight from the kitchen to order, in a way that speaks well to Yangtze’s dedication to absolute freshness. If you visit both, Mandarin Kitchen feels like the big city, while Yangtze feels like your aunt’s house where the family has been cooking in preparation of your arrival for many, many hours.
Some prefer the homier Yangtze to the more chaotic Mandarin Kitchen. If your first priority is noodles, Yangtze makes softer, more pillowy, fresher rice noodle rolls. Every slurp slithers and slides in your mouth, in the best way. It’s a smooth-gliding, delicate triumph of noodle.
Everything else I tried at Yangtze was good—nicely plump and rich pork buns, tidy bundles of seafood secure and crisp with pan frying, sticky balls of glutinous rice, fresh and crunchy fried sesame balls like tasty just-inflated balloons, Chinese broccoli whisked to the table to order. If being treated like family and absolute freshness are your dim sum criteria, and not flash and magnitude, head to Yangtze. 5625 Wayzata Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-541-9469, yangtze.us; dim sum hours, 10 am–2 pm Sa–Su
Pagoda Dinkytown is not the finest dim sum in town, but it is the easiest to get into—you can just walk in and sit down, like people do! It’s also the cheapest (and it runs happy hour dim sum discounts all the time) and has the most generous hours, serving from 10 am to 3 pm. And it’s darn good. In fact, I’ve had New York and San Francisco Chinatown dim sum meals that weren’t as good. The steamed lotus leaves stuffed with rice were rib-sticking and well flavored, and the salt and pepper squid was gorgeously crisp and hot with bits of dry chili, fresh chili, and garlic sticking in diverse places and making the tender squid irresistible. 1417 SE 4th St., Mpls., 612-378-4710, pagodadinkytown.com; dim sum hours, 10 am–3 pm Sa–Su