Tea House (Plymouth, MN)
What could be worse than heading out to your favorite restaurant, with your heart set on your favorite dish, and discovering that everybody else in town had the same idea and is standing in the lobby when you get there?
It's maddening, we say. And we avoid any such problem by heading to Tea House late on the weekends. Go early or get there around 8 PM, and you'll get seated pretty quickly.
The other thing to know about Tea House is that the Szechuan menu is far more interesting than the regular menu. Forget ordering standards like egg foo yung and lo mein; ignore the regular menu completely.
Follow those two suggestions, and you're in for a treat. Szechuan food isn't all hot and spicy. It's about the mixing of different flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, fragrant, and aromatic. The point of the chili peppers is to stimulate the palate so you can better taste all the other flavors.
We loved the Chung King spicy chicken. The same dish is available on both the standard and Szechuan menus, so be sure to order it off the latter. The dish is exceptionally flavorful, with onions, green peppers, and just the right amount of spice.
Dishes are labeled according to their spice level. The hottest dish we tried was the pork in Szechuan sauce. It was served in a bowl with pieces of Napa cabbage. We thought it was delicious, but it's not for everyone. People who like spicy dishes will like this.
If you'd rather have something mild, try the shrimp with asparagus. The shredded pork in garlic sauce is also good, and not too garlicky.
Fish specials are more common on weekends than on weekdays. On one visit we ordered Dancing Fish: pieces of sole in a flavorful broth with carrots, baby corn, and cilantro.
We recommend the tea-smoked duck only if you're sharing with a group. The meat is quite good, but there's nothing but duck on the plate.
Clunkers include the Kung Pao chicken, which was a bit too sweet for us, although its mild peanut flavor is more authentic than you'll find at other Chinese restaurants around town.
And stay away from the double-cooked pork. The meat is salty and fatty, and doesn't do justice to the sautéed leeks and black bean sauce it's served with.
Appetizers are a mixed bag. You might order the sliced pork ear in spicy sauce, or the sliced pork stomach in spicy sauce, but you're on your own if you do. We recommend instead the bamboo tips in spicy sauce or the dan-dan noodles. The latter comes in a small rice bowl, with peanut sauce, green onions, and a bit of shredded meat.
A curiosity is the sauced cucumber. Most of us are not used to eating heated cucumber slices, so we found it a little weird. Go with a group, and order one for the table so everyone can try it.
In general, Tea House is a better restaurant with a large group. Chinese food is the most fun when you can sample lots of dishes.
88 Nathan Lane, Plymouth
Atmosphere: Typical Chinese restaurant
Service: Uneven when crowded
Sound level: Lively
Recommended dishes: Chung king spicy chicken, seafood asparagus, dan-dan noodles
Prices: Entrees $11–$15, $7 lunch buffet
Children: No special menu for children