Wow. What’s a restaurant like you doing in a place like Chanhassen? It’s almost a rule of gastronomy that you can’t find great ethnic restaurants in far-flung exurbs, so I was a bit skeptical about reader Dave B.’s assertion that he preferred the Szechuan cuisine at Tian Jin in Chanhassen above Little Szechuan in St. Paul, or the Tea House in Plymouth. (Dave asked me to not use his last name, because most of his friends don’t know that he is a closet foodie, and he wants to keep it that way.)
Dave lives only a mile from the restaurant, but it took him a long time to discover it, because the space had been occupied by a Giant Panda Chinese buffet, and he had assumed that the new occupant was just another restaurant of the same ilk.
So I met Dave at Tien Jin last night, and invited my friend Jim Harkness to join us. Jim, the executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, lived in China for 16 years, speaks Mandarin fluently, and is a serious foodie in his own right. While we waited for Jim, I had a chance to study the menu, which offers a very extensive list of Szechuan, Mandarin and Cantonese dishes.
All the usual suspects are on offer, ranging from Szechuan Double Cooked Pork and Moo Shu Duck to Beef with broccoli and Kung Pao Chicken, but there are also many dishes that are seldom seen locally on Chinese menus, such as Homestyle gizzards, halibut stewed in wild chili sauce, stewed beef oxtail and tongue, and sea cucumber with scallion sauce. (Most dishes are priced between ($10-$14). Hidden on the back of the menu is a short list of Chinese take-out classics, including chow mein, fried rice and egg foo young, ($8-$9) billed as “Traditional Chinese Dishes.”
As soon as he arrived, Jim started chattering away with the staff in Chinese. It turns out there are several dishes on the Chinese-only menu that are not listed on the bilingual menu, and a lengthy discussion in Chinese ensued, in which Jim tried to persuade our waitress to let us order the shrimp and gluten with tree ear fungus. She insisted that non-Chinese would not like the slippery texture of the gluten, but Jim ultimately prevailed, and when the dish arrived, we agreed – it was delicious. The gluten was much more tender than it is in typical mock duck dishes.
Another delightful off-menu choice was the fish in garlic sauce; sole sliced in thin ribbons and tossed with red and green peppers. Dave recommended the Double Cooked Pork, though he warned us that it was fatty, – as it should be – and we were delighted with the choice. The lamb with cumin, stir-fried with scallions, had a flavor that reminded me of Mexican dishes that use the same spice.
One of the owners told us that the restaurant was named after his hometown, and that chef Yang Yang, a former classmate of his in culinary school, had previously worked in a four-star hotel in Tianjin called the Crystal Palace. (I must admit I had never heard of Tianjin, but it’s the third largest city in China, 100 miles south of Beijing, with a population considerably larger than New York City.)
We did notice that the Szechuan dishes we tried, were not super-spicy, though they were far from bland. Jim said that this milder approach was typical of Tienjin cooking, which has a saltier but less spicy profile. At any rate, it was delicious, and Jim, who has not been very impressed with the level of Chinese cuisine in the Twin Cities, gave it his enthusiastic endorsement.
Impressed by Dave’s ability to discover hidden ethnic treasures in deep exurbia, I asked him to recommend other favorites nearby, and he named several: Na’s Thai Café in Chanhassen, Yumi’s Sushi Bar in Excelsior, and Chaska My Love, a Mexican restaurant with great menudo, and until recently, no English-speaking staff.
Tian Jin, 463 W. 79th St., Chanhassen, 952-934-4111.