SOMETIMES A GREAT DINING discovery is not a new restaurant or a new dish, but a new menu. A decade ago, while dining in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I spotted several intriguing dishes coming out of the kitchen that no one in our party could find on the menu. We asked our waiter. “Special menu,” he said.
At Tea House, if you ask for the special menu you will dine on some of the best Sichuan food in the Twin Cities. The restaurant, located in a strip mall just off I-394 and Highway 169 in Plymouth, draws a crowd at lunchtime—customers craving beef and broccoli, sesame chicken, and other Chinese-American favorites featured on the $7 buffet. But the real reason to come to Tea House is the authentic Sichuan menu, a “special” list of dishes prepared by a team of chefs raised in southwestern China.
Chinese cuisine varies greatly by region, and food from Sichuan is famous for being extra spicy. The Dan-dan spicy noodles at Tea House are a good introduction to fiery Sichuan style: the thick noodles are generously seasoned with chili oil and scallions and topped with ground pork. Among the entrées, the complexity of Sichuan seasoning is best exemplified in the spicy fish fillet with peppercorns—the flavors of whitefish and tofu are electrified with ginger, chili oil, and a unique Sichuan strain of fragrant, citrusy peppercorns.
Not all Sichuan food is dragon’s-breath hot. More nuanced Indian shades of flavor found their way into Sichuan cooking as traders traveling the Silk Road crossed the province. On a recent visit, no dish at Tea House better displayed this influence than the cumin lamb special, the thin strips of meat as succulent and toothsome as they were earthy. Sichuan is a landlocked, mountainous region, so lamb, beef, and pork are staples in local cooking. One of the most interesting dishes on the Tea House menu is the shredded pork with smoked tofu. The tofu, finely julienned and coupled with chopped cilantro, was better-executed than the tea-smoked duck, however. The fowl tasted overwhelmingly of salt.
Besides smoking, another preservation technique used in Sichuan cuisine is pickling. This may be where Tea House reaches its highest notes. On a chilly night, few foods are more comforting than the pickled vegetable and fish soup, a flavorful fish broth containing brined bok choy and tender slices of sole. A side of green beans was also made more piquant and pleasing with the addition of marinated vegetables.
One of Tea House’s best dishes is also among the simplest. In the stir-fried fish with black-bean sauce, tender chunks of sole received a dash of white pepper and then were paired with perfectly cooked broccoli spears and a tangy sauce.
Owners Yolanda Wang and Melissa Ho have put a lot of effort into giving their strip-mall space an inviting feel. Wooden high-backed chairs, murals, and lanterns hanging over the tables create an authentic Chinese ambience.
On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was packed. As the folks at the next table perused the menu, looking for something recognizable and, thus, unadventurous—like sesame chicken—only my wife was able to keep me from leaning over and offering a recommendation. I wanted to say, “Ask for the special menu!”