Thursday, May 31, 2007

Review: Ming Dragon Chinese Restaurant

Encouragement to find lesser-known places in the Twin Cities led me to, in typical-rebellious-adolescent fashion (well, not really), head out of Minneapolis and into the south suburbs. Aside from Mandarin Kitchen in Bloomington, the south suburbs aren’t really known for Asian cuisine. Case in point: I searched Google Maps first with “asian restaurants,” but an initial search yielded Leeann Chin and…Hooters.

Not to be discouraged, I called someone else who lived around there. Might they know of a Asian restaurant? She did, and to boot, added that it wasn’t too bad. It was somewhere…in Savage, but she didn’t remember the name. I searched Google Maps again. A detailed “Chinese restaurant” search this time resulted in three Chinese restaurant listings. Interestingly enough, two of them bore the same address, only with different names.

My “logical skills” deducted that a Chinese restaurant would still be at that location, so
enter my drive to Ming Dragon Chinese Restaurant (4391 Highway 13 W, Savage). After some five miles past gas stations and a Famous Dave’s, I hadn’t seen it yet and was about to turn in the opposite direction of the road. Fortunately, the turn we looped into was actually the side street where Ming Dragon was located; I almost missed it as it was on a strip mall corner.

The restaurant was clean, but as it was past peak lunch hour, around 1:30, there were only about four customers inside. All of them were having the lunch buffet; they seemed relaxed as they read the newspaper. I checked the food at the buffet, but it was dry, probably because it was too late to cook for potential customers. Instead, I asked for a menu, which only came in a dinner version.

The food arrived fairly quickly. I had ordered the “fish filet with green vegetable” ($10.50) and the “mapo bean curd” (a traditional Szechuan dish with chile, ground pork, and tofu, $7.95). I was slightly apprehensive about ordering the former, not because I did not know what the green vegetable was, but because it was American broccoli. That said, the presentation was very nice, as seen above. The fish was well textured, with bits of mushroom and tiny ginger squares in the thick sauce for flavor. However, the small portion did not seem worth the $10.50. I wondered whether I was paying dinner prices for a lunch portion – not a uncommon situation at other restaurants.

As for the mapo bean curd, it never came; the kitchen had made the wrong order of tofu. This was initially disheartening because I had wanted something spicy; in addition, the waiter had shrugged the wrong order off. However, the braised tofu with shitake mushroom (also $7.95) was our replacement, and more importantly, was not a disappointment. The shitake mushrooms were large, and there was a slight taste of ginger in the garlic sauce (which was the thick enough to spoon onto rice). Furthermore, instead of having been bought pre-fried, the tofu had been deep-fried in the kitchen. (You can usually tell if tofu has been pre-fried if it tastes like a sponge. Also, store-bought tofu is usually cut into triangles.) This allowed it to remain hot at the table with a soft texture.

My summary: while I would probably not make a special drive (at risk of getting lost again) to go to Ming Dragon, if you’re in the south suburban area, it's good enough to stop by and try for yourself.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

This is Foodivia: #3

#2 and #1 (the actual definition of foodivia) are here and here, respectively.

Not to paraphrase Johnny Gilbert with my post title, but besides the “Did you knows?” I’ve also been searching examples of foodivia. And there are so many of them, it’s absolutely wonderful. Here is one that absolutely nailed my arbitrary definition on the head, from Floyd Skloot’s “Jambon Dreams”:

Halfway through lunch, [my brother] began the ritual quiz: “Okay, what’s a hero sandwich called in Philadelphia?”
“A hoagie.”
“In Boston?”
“What about Chicago?”
“A sub.”
“And why do they call it a sub?”
“Because it’s shaped like a submarine.”

Esq. Supertaster?

A food writer with no capacity for taste. A wave of nausea hit. I had no idea if it was the sour cream or white-hot panic. - David Leite, from "Tales of a Supertaster"

67% of the books that I’ve read this week (consisting of Eating My Words and Best Food Writing 2006) referred to Dr. Linda Bartoshuk. She’s a Yale professor who has developed tasks to evaluate how sensitive to a taste or taste element (e.g. sweet or sour) an individual is. (An example would be the test that our class did in biology, when we placed paper strips on our tongues to test our sensitivity of PCP PTC. This dominant trait causes most people to taste the paper as bitter.)

There is so much to be said about the sensation of food in your mouth, and most writers describe it from an emotional perspective. But the word “sensation,” like “sensual,” derives from the word “sense” – something grounded by physiological observation. In a similar vein, Bartoshuk’s research examines the biological basis and mechanism of taste, something we often overlook. Maybe we forget what our meatloaf tastes like because we’re engaged in a dinner conversation, but it could also be because we have stuffy noses – or as Bartoshuk’s lab considers, we’re genetically less sensitive to the flavors that comprise meatloaf.

Although Bartoshuk calls those significantly more sensitive to these tests "supertasters," but Connecticut food writer Leite discovers that the term doesn't refer to "gustatory supremacy." Nevertheless, I'm still interested. It's an good reason for a New Haven field trip.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Female Food Writing

(Unrelated Did You Know?: right now, I'm watching a special on a chocolatier in Taiwan that makes chocolate shaped to look like Hermes purses. Just thought that was interesting.)

"From the nameless fifteen-year-old bride given book-length instructions on how to run her husband's home, to M.F.K. Fisher [one of the first modern food writers] who dared to write about men the way Brillat-Savarin [a 18th century male writer who related female sexuality to food] wrote about women, the history of food writing became the story of the long, slow struggle toward women's emancipation."
- Mark Kurlansky in Choice Cuts

Currently on chapter seven (of thirty), I've managed to go through chapters in Choice Cuts entitled "Not Eating" and "Food And Sex." (For your information, the latter's contents are much, much more discreet than say, Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back video featuring fruit. As I learned on a VH1 retrospective.)

The above excerpt (I believe it was in that same chapter) caught my interest,as it somewhat related to my History Day essay (quick thesis: While advertising for appliances and pre-prepared food in the 1920s and 1930s championed emancipation from housework for women, it simultaneously and intentionally pressured them into the image of the "perfect housewife" that shied away from suffrage).

The paragraph also seemed to mesh perfectly with the confident voices of female food writers I have read. Aside from the anthologies I have been reading, I read Mimi Sheraton's memoir Eating My Words as well as Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. It was difficult to not compare the books to one another - while Sheraton and Reichl were both restaurant critics at the New York Times, their tenures were about two decades apart, but even with that, as very "strong" women, their personalities were similar (great, since critics are supposed to have opinions on food).

They also both dealt with comparisons to male reviewers, which I thought was interesting - those incidents played on the idea that there is "male food," and then there is "female food" (invariably more delicate), and that for example, a woman couldn't adequately review steaks.

Fortunately, these women rose above these misguided ideas, and fortunately for my reading, each book's main theme was different. Sheraton focused on how her food career spanned her entire life, while Reichl examined her career at the NYT (dividing each section of her book as a different disguise that she would use at restaurants); I enjoyed the specificity of the latter more and probably would recommend that first.

That said, time to read about bread - excellent.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thursday's here, which means...

the arrival of the Star Tribune's Taste section on my doorstep. I love the Taste section, for several reasons:

1. It provides a rationale for me to eat at new restaurants. " was reviewed by the Strib!" And sometimes, to buy new products (read: pomegranate chip ice cream).
2. I can cook vicariously by marveling over the pictures that accompany the recipes. (This is actually a reason why I've started to begin reading Martha Stewart Living.)
3. If Foodivia was a word (in the same vein as truthiness), then the Eat Your Words game is definitely foodivia (remember, food + trivia?). Tucked into the corner of one of the pages, it's a word game that tests your knowledge of food/cooking terms.

Today's Taste featured the "Taste 50," subtitled "Fifty people, products, places and ideas that make Minnesota the place for food fans." This time, nothing related to the State Fair was on the list, which makes me relieved that I hadn't missed out on deep-fried Snickers bars last year. (But...did you know that deep-fried Snickers bars are not unique to the Minnesota State Fair?)

The Taste 50 is an listing I annually pore over, and as usual, there were plenty of things I didn't know about. I'm hoping to try them soon (perhaps another quest for this blog?) -- but I was particularly excited at the second entry: Dong Yang. I would yell "Scoop," but judging from the fact that Dong Yang's always packed on weekend lunches, I don't think I was the first one to find out...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Three Rs

You might be wondering what I do aside from eating on this senior program, or what I'm doing in between blog posts. Like traditional learning, it can be summarized from the above acronym.

1. Reading
I love to read, and I read almost everything. If I'm particularly bored at the dentist's office, I will actually read a copy of Bikers Today or something like that if it's there. Granted, if Gourmet is on that same coffee table, I will pick that up first.

Reading about food was what got me interested in writing about food. Furthermore, I'm hoping to improve as a food writer/blogger through examples.

I'm currently reading three books:
- Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History (Mark Kurlanser, ed.)
- Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life (Mimi Sheraton, former NYT food critic)
- Best Food Writing 2006 (Holly Hughes, ed.)

If you'd like to read with me, I suggest beginning with the latter. The Best Food Writing annual anthologies is a sampler of a diverse array of topics, from barbeque to candy bars to childhood. It was the 2004 edition given to me as a Christmas present that culminated in this senior program proposal. I may write reviews upon finishing this reading.

2. Writing
What you see in this blog post. Something I've learned is that reviews take longer than I thought, even with a subject in mind. I've also learned to take detailed (though discreet) notes at the dinner table.

3. Arithmetic
Okay, so recipes have numbers in them. And you can use proportions (from pre-algebra) to make them for greater or fewer servings.

But my project title is "Food = Life, Food = Art" (whenever I don't feel like saying the "equals" sign, I say "as" instead). And although I can't draw a still life of fruit, aside from a lopsided banana, eating and writing are things that I hope to refine - discovering the complex layers (insert cake metaphor here) within each. With that said, one larger theme I am working on within this blog is what food means to me and to people in general. I wonder if I can sum it up in one large statement - "Food = Life" is deep, but a little broad. Aside from that "equation," my next guess would be "Food = Emotion." Couples save the top layer for their wedding cakes for sentiment. For a crude example, after a person throws up a certain food, they often are not willing to eat it at a later time in their life. I have a feeling this is a question that will take longer than three weeks to answer, but for now, that's my conjecture.

Review: Whole Foods'/Byerly's Asian selection

My friends know that I dislike Leeann Chin (the Midwest fast food restaurant chain). I should probably note that I have had some success with their Peking Chicken Stir-Fry (mainly because it has jicama). (Yes, for the most part, these informational links lead you to Wikipedia.)

That said, I complain often enough about Americanized Asian food, although I have gotten accustomed to it. Another complaint that I have is regarding the dearth of vegetables in my entrees at Americanized Asian fast food places. More often than not, I get meat in a tasty brown sauce over my rice. No veggies - unless they involve a (not-so-very) special fungi. That said, I began a quest for vegetables, and for really good - not just edible bordering on vaguely tasty - lemon chicken. Or something to that effect.

I went to Whole Foods first and bought some sweet and sour tofu ($7.99/pound) and teriyaki sweet potatoes ($6.99/pound). Following that, a trip to Byerly's yielded me Big Bowl Chinese Express, in the same spot where Leeann Chin had been a year earlier. And my Big Bowl Chinese Express choice was the teriyaki chicken ($6.99 regular size, $5.79 small).

The sweet and sour tofu was not really typical tofu, but bean curd, a tougher, denser version that explained the more expensive price. It was nowhere near sweet and sour, and not particularly Asian, but was vaguely sweet and salty. The bean curd, because of its texture, did not absorb the sauce but was nonetheless pretty good, especially if you treated the sauce as a light dip. Chopped green onion added flavor, though I wished the red pepper slices were thicker to contribute more sweetness.

The teriyaki sweet potatoes were long, quartered and covered in sesame seeds. They also looked shriveled. Nonetheless, the interior was moist, although some potato pieces were clearly less cooked than others. The teriyaki sauce was slightly sweet and even a little bit spicy, a good complement to the chewy texture.

Finally, the teriyaki chicken. While I enjoy Big Bowl as a sit-down restaurant, its Express chains in Byerly's don't match the main restaurant's flavors. For example, the kung pao chicken on display had a significantly lighter tone than that served in the restaurant. In addition, the entrees are limited, and in particular, none of Big Bowl's noodle dishes are available via Express. Instead, a refrigerated peanut noodle salad was in the case. The teriyaki chicken that I ordered was standard Teriyaki, but the sauce was a little too sweet and rich for my taste. Green peas added color to the chicken, but were few and far between, and didn't soften up the tough texture of the chicken.

My verdict? I would pass on the teriyaki chicken, but I think it's up to you on the teriyaki sweet potatoes and the sweet and sour tofu. Of those two, I preferred the latter; I could see myself becoming bored with the teriyaki sweet potatoes after one serving.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Review: Dong Yang

735 45th Ave NE, Minneapolis (Google Maps tells me that this is in Minneapolis, but I know better...well, it's somewhere in or between the towns of Columbia Heights and Hilltop, next to Fridley.)

When you drive into Dong Yang's parking lot, you're immediately confronted by a giant hardware store next door. That's okay - because Dong Yang is just as big. In fact, Dong Yang's official name is Dong Yang Oriental Foods and is the largest Korean supermarket I know of in the Twin Cities.

Walk in and don't take a cart. You should probably shop after the meal, when you're not hungry. (But Dong Yang has a lot of food - from the Korean equivalent of Pocky to aloe vera juice.) Head to the back of the store and turn left at the meat counter. You'll find an opening with tables, chairs and a counter. This is Dong Yang's restaurant: the decor is lacking, but clean. On Sunday lunches, it's full. It's also self-service, so choose what you want from the signs on the wall surrounding the counter that comprise the menu and pay up.

In general, when I go to a Korean restaurant in the area with friends (for example, King's, Mirror of Korea, or Shilla-turned-another-name-I-can't-remember), I order at least one of the following three dishes because they tend to be friend-pleasers:

1) Bibimbap. This is the dish pictured above: it's a large serving of rice covered with cooked vegetables and thin sliced beef, then topped off with an egg. If you request it to be served in a stone bowl (which usually amounts to a $2 price increase), it's a showpiece as it sizzles in the pot. You would also be required to do some cooking work by adding hot sauce to your taste and stirring the rice in the bowl so that it's evenly browned and not too wet.

2)Bulgogi. Thinly sliced, it is Korean barbequed beef with a slightly-sweet marinade of mainly garlic and soy sauce. The secret ingredient, though? Grated Asian pear. At times it is also stirfried with sliced white onion for additional flavor. With large orders, it is often grilled tableside. Bulgogi can be eaten by itself, or wrapped in a lettuce leaf with hot sauce.

3) Japchae. This dish consists of clear cellophane noodles made up of sweet potato flour (like transparent vermicelli). Vegetables (zucchini and mushroom seem to be popular in Minnesotan restaurants) and sliced beef are added, and the japchae is stir-fried in sesame oil and soy sauce. This makes for a smooth texture to the noodles without them being slimy.

In general, these tend to be consistent good dishes to try for your first time at a Korean restaurant. They will also come with a set of small dishes (about six) that you eat with your meal. At Dong Yang, at least two will be some form of the infamous kimchee (one lettuce, one daikon). Another might be mung bean sprouts; all six dishes will have been chosen for the day. If you are lucky, you might get slices of fish paste slices (there is no overwhelming fishy smell to them) in sesame oil. If you're really lucky, you'll get their batch of marinated potatoes, which are coated in a sweet pseudo-crust. Dong Yang does allow take-out orders, but make sure that you specifically request the small dishes; otherwise, they will not be included.

The ordering process at Dong Yang:
1. Pick your meal. In general, dishes are written in Korean with English translations in small text on the side. I've written down these translations below as best I remember.
2. Pay.
3. Get your chopsticks, napkins, etc. from the containers adjacent to the register. Some of you may have qualms about this; they are clean.
4. Make sure you get some of the roasted barley tea from the coffee machine to the left; pour it on your own from the stacks of styrofoam cups.
5. If you order bibimbap (described below), grab a tube of hot sauce from the counter as well for your table; return it when you're done using it.

When waiting for your food, it pays to be observant. Your food will come to the counter and the cook will yell the order, in Korean. The small dishes (read below) will come in a tray just before your actual orders. When in doubt, you may want to ask if that is your order. After your meal, you'll want to bus your trays to the cart in front of the kitchen door.

Over my (frequent) visits at Dong Yang, I've tried about seventy percent of the menu. The bibimbap ("rice in hot stone bowl," $9.99) is excellent; in particular, they tend to give a large quantity of one ingredient, the bellflower root/fern stems (I'm not exactly sure what a bellflower root is, but I'll find out) which adds a tough, crunchy texture to the mix. Their hot sauce is also not too watery but not too thick, which means it evenly spreads throughout the rice mixture (see additional picture).

While the bulgogi ("sliced beef") is reasonably priced at $9.99, flavor (salty/not as much flavor) and quantity tended also to be inconsistent; sometimes, there was a greater proportion of onions versus beef. The japchae ("clear noodles with vegetables," $9.99) was also not a standout. Unlike other restaurants, there was also more vegetables than noodles sometimes, which took away from the dish. The noodles tended to have less flavor and were drier as a result.

That said, Dong Yang is probably my favorite Korean restaurant so far. The quantity is usually quite generous, and if you experiment off the menu, the results tend to be great. My mom's favorite was the noodles in black bean sauce ($7.99); the dish is very similar to another Taiwanese dish. In general, the sauce contains chopped pork, onions and carrots slathered in the dark sauce over noodles. (Warning: if your taste depends on your food's appearance, don't order this dish.) The dish is probably a acquired taste, as the noodles became less sticky and the sauce a little bit more flavorful the second time.

Another notable dish was the seafood pancake ($9.99). Typically, most Korean restaurants create a circular, crepe-like patty with squid, shrimp and onion decoratively placed in a circular design. Dong Yang's rendition, by these terms, was radically good. Think a 9"x13" rectangle cut into 2"x2" squares. Each square is filled with squid and green onion, like the others, but more so. The batter (I believe cornstarch-based) that holds it together is deep fried and served with a soy sauce and sesame seed-onion dipping sauce.

Finally, the mackerel in spicy sauce ($11.99) is a slight misnomer. It's not all that spicy, and it doesn't just contain mackerel. Rather, it is a mackerel covered in a spicy-sweet sauce that goes well with plain rice. Large chunks of daikon and carrot, also marinated in this sauce, surround the dish. It had a complex flavor that I got seconds for.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Update on senior program: I am eating.

Thanks for the comments. I just realized that they were getting "blocked" by my account, but feel free to post - they should be working fine now.

After two messages, one plane trip (!) and three voicemails, I got my first lunch scheduled - for a half-hour. Hurray! (Anyone I actually know: if you'd like to be part of any additional trips, please email me to schedule a time.)

Review: Chin's Kitchen, 1533 Larpenteur Ave West, St Paul
It's hard to find authentic Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities, but Chin's Kitchen is one of them. It's even harder to find a Taiwanese restaurant in the area (with the exception of Evergreen on Nicollet Avenue), but Chin's Kitchen is that, too.

Like most Chinese restaurants, Chin's Kitchen has a full dine-in menu with chow mein, but the real deal is on the back page. "Hot dishes" and "cold dishes" are both labeled in Chinese and English. I tried favorites that the majority of people I had talked to had recommended to me.

First up was the seaweed salad ($2.40). Taiwanese seaweed salads are unlike Japanese seaweed salad (bright green, stringy) in that they are darker in color. While some seaweed salads feature thick strands of seaweed tied in knots, this salad was cut in thin, smooth strips. The texture worked well with the flavor, which was pleasantly more "garlicky" than soy-based, but did not overpower the actual seaweed taste. The assorted roasted sampler ($6.35) contains this as well as some other appetizers and was generally very good over my trips.

Next was the beef stew ($5.70). Chin's Kitchen is known among family friends for its soups, so I didn't exactly need a repeat visit for this. I ordered it anyway. That said, it was excellent. Note that unlike American beef stew (read: biscuits and thick stew), this beef stew is more of a soup. The texture of the noodles was wide enough and hearty for the stronger flavor of the beef broth, and the beef was pre-cut in manageable pieces. Carmelized onions also added to the flavor.

I custom-ordered the pork stew (above photo, $5.70), the beef stew's equivalent, with rice noodles (a popular option) instead of the typical wide noodles or rice. It also came with an additional five-spice egg, a traditional Taiwanese appetizer. While the staff was flexible enough to accomodate me, changing the noodles probably was not a good idea on my part. The rice noodles absorbed nearly all the soup, making it more delicately flavored than it needed to be. However, on a later visit, the pork stew was rather tasty over rice. The egg was nicely flavored.

Finally, I went to the extreme: I went off the menu. That is, I asked the owner about any new dishes that would soon be on the menu. She came back with a large bowl of a traditional Taiwanese recipe she was trying out. I recognized it as a soup that my mother made. Pronounced "bah gay" (nasal "n" overtone on the "gay" sound), the dish consists of pork covered with fish paste, then boiled in a shiitake mushroom-black pepper soup with Napa cabbage. Chin's took a different route - while they did the same thing, they also boiled taro and ginger (both roots) together for their soup base. The ginger flavor was particularly strong and added a heated flavor to the soup without making it sour (a problem that can occur when making it). I'm not sure when this will be added to the menu, but I ordered a bowl home for the road.

Chin's isn't made to be a banquet facility, but it does offer authentic homestyle Taiwanese food - a rare occurence. Portions are also generous, especially at the price. The restaurant also offers a take-out, but not with the more Chinese menu. However, if you asked, it probably would be fine with the friendly staff. If not, go for the juicy potstickers (10 for $6.00). One particular pro is that the bottom of each is evenly browned.

Did you know?
"Smarties [the British, Nestle equivalent to M&M's] are oblate spheroids with a minor axis of about 5 mm and a major axis of about 15 mm." - Wikipedia

This fact just needed to be heard because I have never used the phrase "oblate spheroids" before (hello to all math teachers!). And despite having collected M&M dispensers for fourteen years of my life, I have never measured an M&M nor I'm impressed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


The second-most frequent conversation I've been asked this month is "What are you doing for your senior program?" (Senior program is the independent project seniors at our school complete in May.)

I always reply, "Eating."
"What? Aren't you supposed to actually do something?"
"Yeah...I'm eating."
"That's like getting credit for breathing. What a slacker."
"Ohh, let me clarify: my senior program is food writing."
"Yeah. Writing about food."
"People do that? Oh, like reviews?"
"Yup - I'm excited."
"Me too. When are you bringing me out for lunch?"


I'm Heidi.

I've always liked writing, and even before that, I liked eating. For me, food writing intersects both realms. This blog will document my interactions with food - and some of yours, via feedback from comments and even guest bloggers. One of the larger themes of this blog will be how cultures are expressed in food. On this blog, I'll be writing restaurant reviews for (mostly) Minnesota as well as personal essays. Soon, I'll be investigating what "chocolatey chips" really are. I'm not a cook - as my friends know, the closest thing I have to a gourmet specialty is Pizza Rolls (Totino's), but I might try to make something. I'll keep you updated on that, too.

As for the name of the blog, Foodivia: it's a portmanteau of "food" and "trivia" - two of my very favorite topics. Where does the trivia come in? Well, this is a learning experience for me, from the writing to the eating, and I'm excited to take advantage of all the fun tidbits that will come along. There'll be a regular "Did you know?" feature - ranging from cooking techniques to weird facts about snack foods. (For your information, the Golden Gate Bridge is 28,800 Oreos long. I have an "Oreo Trivia" mug that tells me these things...)

So join me here - and happy eating.