Choice of the Heart
Jun Bo, Richfield’s sprawling new Chinese restaurant, serves the state’s most ambitious dim sum.
A WEEKEND MORNING at Jun Bo’s cavernous, 400-seat dining room is a bedlam of Chinese and English, of rattling, clattering dishes. Waitstaff push carts piled high with metal boxes, weaving around tables in a grand, gustatory traffic jam. One server parks hers and lifts the lid off a small tin of dumplings, releasing a puff of steam. The guests nod affirmatively and pass the tin around the table. With a few deft chopstick strokes, the dumplings are gone.
Any Chinese restaurant worth its five-spice powder serves dim sum, a boisterous brunch of bite-size noshings: spring rolls, pot stickers, rice-noodle rolls, buns, and the like. The new Jun Bo, located in a ketchup-and-mustard-colored building in Richfield, serves dim sum on par with that found in the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco. Jun Bo employs seven dim sum cooks and several helpers, working extended shifts and making everything from scratch—right down to the dumpling wrappers. The dining experience is quite possibly the last thing you’d expect to find next to a Menards off I-494, in a former Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant. Adios, chimichangas. Ni hao, dim sum.
In the Jun Bo lobby, hostesses in red silk dresses guide guests past a tropical fish tank and a religious shrine to a dining area seemingly as big as Beijing itself. The clientele is predominantly Asian. The room is decorated with a golden dragon and phoenix; a Chinese soap opera is being projected onto a bamboo-paneled wall. A family of nine fills a large table, three generations circling a lazy Susan.
Friends and I are brunching with Carl Antholz and Beth Fisher, who teach a hands-on class on how to make dim sum at Kitchen Window in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. (Antholz takes his dim sum seriously—he’s brought along his own bottle of dumpling sauce.) Before we begin, he offers some basic advice: “Just point,” he says, gesturing toward a few items on a nearby cart. “Try it and see if you like it.” We break apart our chopsticks, pour cups of jasmine tea, and point to a tin of steamed shrimp dumplings.
Antholz gives us the go-ahead to use our fingers, a tactic we employ for the fluffy, snowball-like buns filled with barbecued pork—self-contained sloppy joes. We pinch our chopsticks around Chinese broccoli, which are bright green and still pleasantly crisp, and taro cakes, a starchy potato-like root that’s mixed with bits of pork and then fried. The carts come by with more items faster than we can finish those on our plates.
Dim sum, which means “choice of the heart” in Cantonese, is a meal built from small dishes of your choosing—order to your heart’s content. Antholz picks up a dumpling shaped like a tiny cupcake and demonstrates how it’s made, punching invisible dough into a cup and pleating it around the edges. Making dim sum is a putzy process—certainly a labor of love. It’s understandable why most dim sum restaurants don’t offer nearly the quantity or variety of dishes that Jun Bo does. Increasingly, Antholz laments, dim sum items are purchased prepackaged and frozen. Fresh-made are superior; wrappers stay tender and fillings are toothsome without being tough.
Language barriers can impede identification of unfamiliar foods during the somewhat chaotic ordering process. A plastic-wrapped platter of scaly, whitish claws, however, proves all too recognizable. “Chicken feet,” Antholz says, nodding his head to signal an order. The waitress, a prim Asian woman, stares at the Caucasian man with a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache, then giggles as she hands him a plate. One of our companions, a dim sum novice, daintily holds the rubbery paw with her fingertips, as if trying to grip it with the least possible contact. “It’s so terrifying…I mean, delicious-looking,” she says, wide-eyed. “If you eat animals, let’s cop to it,” Antholz says, chomping on a digit.
Antholz scans a cart for sesame balls: lotus-seed paste rolled inside rice flour dough that puffs up when fried.
He reaches for his copy of Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide and points to a picture, reading a decent approximation of the Chinese pronunciation. The waitress smiles in comprehension. “Name it and I give it to you,” she says, and lifts a plate of sesame balls off her cart. But Antholz is already out of his seat, snooping in a metal pot to uncover a silken tofu dessert served with a sweet, clear syrup. Our waitress explains why she didn’t mention it when showing us her offerings. “Most Americans look at it and want something else,” she says. The tofu “soup” tastes better than it sounds, but we prefer the elegant white blocks of coconut milk gelatin. “God, that’s heaven,” Antholz says, as he takes a bite of the silky sweet dessert. Or perhaps, I think, nirvana.
“This is the first dim sum I’ve had in Minneapolis,” Antholz proclaims—the first real dim sum, he means, right down to the remaining two chicken feet that he wraps in a paper napkin and tucks into his bag. Fisher reads the bill: $64.54, tax and gratuity included. “That’s how you know,” she says, the meal’s affordability confirming its authenticity. As we sip the last of our tea, a waiter passes by carrying plastic-wrapped plates of mysterious brown objects. “Boneless duck feet?” he offers. “Maybe next time,” we say.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.
Jun Bo Chinese Restaurant
7717 Nicollet Ave. S.