Photos by Craig Bares
the sampler platter at Afghan Restaurant
For whatever reason, the Twin Cities has long laid claim to a solid lineup of very good Afghan restaurants. However, until a couple of readers called my attention to it, I’d never heard of the Afghan Restaurant (formerly Crystal Bistro). Based on a recent visit, this charming spot ought to be on a lot more radar screens.
Although it’s no great shakes as far as ambience goes—the combination of red vinyl booths and assorted Middle Eastern bric-a-brac is pretty standard ethnic café chic—the rest of the equation is thoroughly enjoyable. Throughout the evening we were fussed over by the restaurant’s exuberant owner, who was about as gracious a host as one could want. He quickly read our group’s interest in sharing plates and brought us perfectly portioned platters of his recommendations.
Our favorites included crisp ground beef sombosa pastries, strips of potato-stuffed turnovers called boulanee with a delicious yogurt sauce, a knockout baba ganoush made from smoked eggplant, meat-filled mantu ravioli topped with tangy tomato and garlic sauce, grilled fresh-as-spring lamb chops bathed in a creamy “secret” sauce, and swoon-worthy kebabs. The basmati rice was perfect, and we loved the two homemade chutneys.
The only significant disappointments were a tinny, salty flavor in the spinach-centric dishes and the loss of the sole remaining lamb shank to a nearby table. For northern suburb dwellers in particular, this is a very enjoyable and moderately priced option. 6408 Bass Lake Rd., Crystal, 763-533-4900, afghanrestaurantonline.com
With a new outpost by the U of M, the critically acclaimed Tea House is becoming a northern Chinese restaurant dynasty. Just a block from TCF Bank Stadium, the new spot is the most ambitious of the three. The makeover of the former Baker’s Square is impressive; the layout features marble-topped tables, curtained dining nooks with pillowed banquettes, handsome lighting fixtures, and a color-changing etched bamboo patterned wall.
One notable difference between this menu and that of its sister spots is a short list of “best of” dishes from the other two. Topping that selection, and the one item that absolutely shouldn’t be missed, is the mini juicy buns—succulent treats with pork and/or crab filling. Eating them involves delicately lifting the golf-ball-size dumplings onto a spoon, carefully biting open the top, sucking out the piping-hot broth inside, adding a bit of vinegar sauce, and then chowing down on the remaining package. It’s a simply wonderful tour de force.
Other great specialties include the best scallion pancakes I’ve ever had—crunchy, flavorful, served with a superlative soy sauce—and the sautéed pea tips. Request the latter, or any of the sautéed greens on the menu, prepared “garlic style.” Without that added dimension, they’re pretty ordinary. Other great dishes include the wickedly spicy Chung King–style stir-fries, the even more fiery but superbly tender boiled beef in Szechuan hot sauce, the exemplary kung pao chicken, and a melt-in-your-mouth braised pork belly casserole called Chairman Mao’s Favorite Pork. Apparently, it really was.
Not everything struck a harmonious chord. The pan-fried potstickers were mushy and non-descript. Szechuan dumplings in chili oil were limp, dan dan noodles had almost no taste, and the honey crispy shrimp, although swaddled in a luscious sauce, had a bit too much batter for my liking. Frequently, there were noticeably lengthy delays in the delivery, but the wait staff itself was as cheerful, helpful, and engaged as you’ll find at a Chinese restaurant. 2525 University Ave. SE, Mpls., 612-331-8866, ourteahouse.com