Shuang Cheng (Minneapolis, MN)

There’s something to be said about a tabletop covered with delicious food. It’s even better when it costs less than $15 a person, including tax and tip. And if ordering random dishes off the enormous menu is a delight, then we’re willing to overlook the cramped tables and erratic service. And judging from the packed dining room and the long waits, lots of other people agree.

Shuang Cheng (it means “Twin Cities” in Mandarin) is our favorite Twin Cities Chinese restaurant, and that’s saying something. We’re blessed with some first-rate Chinese eateries: Village Wok, Red Pepper, Rainbow. But Shuang Cheng’s consistency keeps us coming back.

At first glance, the menu is daunting: page after page of dishes, some never before seen in the Twin Cities. There’s also a board of never-changing specials, handwritten in both Chinese and English. And little is explained: “Roast Pig,” “Spicy Eggplant,” “Steamed Shrimp with Garlic.” How can anyone decide?

Relax. It’ll all be fine. While not everything on the menu is perfect, nothing is awful. And if you follow a few simple rules, you’re in for a treat.

Rule No. 1: seafood is king here. Flip right to the seafood section of the menu, and order anything that strikes your fancy. We’re in love with the whole fried Chilean sea bass, either with black bean sauce or ginger-scallion sauce. Or the steamed walleye with ginger and scallions. The mussels with black bean sauce are messy, but delicious.

The seafood asparagus is worth a trip all by itself. It’s shrimp, squid, and scallops, stir-fried with asparagus pieces in a light sauce. And the best thing we’ve found on the menu-so far-is the baked spicy scallops. They come covered with Chinese five-spice seasoning and are stir-fried to golden perfection with onions and scallions. Eat this one fast; it tastes far better when hot.

Rule No. 2: what you read is what you get. This is a Chinese restaurant for Chinese; you don’t get the same overcooked vegetables in every dish. “Plum duck” is pieces of duck in plum sauce. It’s sweet and strong and tasty, but it doesn’t come with any vegetables. “Beef with dried orange peels” is a dish of stir-fried beef with orange peels: pungent, crunchy, and delicious. But again, it’s just beef.

This problem is easily solved: order one of the vegetable dishes. You can choose from stir-fried green beans, bok choy, Chinese broccoli (also called gai lan), pea tips, and mustard greens. Our favorite are the pea tips: they’re fresh and sweet and bursting with flavor. The mustard greens are much more bitter, if you like that kind of thing (Bruce does).

Rule No. 3: order at least one nonfish dish. Although less consistent, there are some gems among the mammals and fowl as well. The beef and hot pepper is intensely flavorful. The sesame chicken or beef are both good. And we like the roast duck chow fun a lot.

But don’t get carried away.

Rule No. 4: expect a lot of food. The kitchen doesn’t skimp. Shuang Cheng is most fun with groups of four to six. Order one or two fewer dishes than people, and share everything. Be prepared to take the leftovers home. Larger parties also work, but you’ll have to wait even longer for a table.

Not everything is great. The stuffed black mushrooms are filled with a mealy and tasteless chopped pork mixture. The sliced roasted duck with Chinese broccoli (mysteriously listed under the “Barbeque” section of the menu) is too greasy, although the broccoli stir-fried with slices of fresh ginger was delicious. The sweet-and-sour chicken is uninteresting; so is the sweet and sour soup. The eggrolls have nothing to say for themselves, either. But those few negatives pale in comparison to everything else wonderful on the menu.

Rule No. 5: don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. If you have trouble deciding, you can ask the waiter for a recommendation. You’re likely to be steered away from the more traditional dishes, but you won’t be disappointed either. Rule No. 6: despite some Szechuan entrées, this is primarily a Cantonese restaurant. If you are looking for pot stickers, you won’t find any.

The food is so good that you will hardly notice your Spartan surroundings. It’s a good thing, too, since no effort is spent on the décor. Tables are so crammed together that the waiters sometimes have trouble weaving amongst them. Dishes arrive when they are done, and not at the same time—another reason to share food. And the noise can be deafening, though less so if you’re at one of the back tables.

Shuang Cheng has cheap lunch plates for $5 and $6, and entrées range from $8 to $12. They offer enough vegetarian choices to please anyone, and accept reservations for large parties. We hosted a 15-person dinner here once, and were thrilled with the results. We’ve also brought out-of-town guests to what we consider one of Minneapolis’ culinary stars.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.