Evergreen is one of those restaurants that let's you feel like you're in on a secret. Stacked underneath one of those Eat Street mini-malls rife with nail salons and places that sell long distance phone cards, it is one of the few restaurants that makes you feel as though you've arrived.
One of my pet peeves is when ethnic restaurants with stripped down decor get pigeon holed as hole-in-the-wall-authentic (HITWA). Evergreen certainly features some HITWA touch points. Golden statues of an idol or deity with which I am not familiar. Specials written on a white board with translations. One of those stand-alone refrigerators with the sliding door that contains bubble tea and canned soft drinks.
Maybe all of the accoutrements are there to put urban hipsters at ease. The urban hipsters in attendance are, indeed, at ease. The knowingly tongue-in-cheek menu (which features neither tongue nor cheek, but is worth reading for its descriptions) doesn't hurt. At any rate, Taiwan is a country that draws on many influences, and so "authenticity" takes backseat to taste and innovation at Evergreen.
On our last visit, after a nip of the (complimentary) hot tea, we began with a cold appetizer (I would recommend doing likewise), the five spice boiled peanuts. As we waited for our other courses, the waitress quickly unfurled a small bowl of pekid looking orbs that look kind of like fish eyes. No points for presentation; plenty of points for flavor. Boiling peanuts allows them to absorb more flavor, and gives them a more toothsome quality.
I'm learning to appreciate cream cheese puffs on their own terms. In this case, those terms are price (a scant $3.20 for six) and originality (the pink corn syrup comes in a ketchup bottle!). But yeah, fried cheese... Take it or leave it, but don't leave the steamed dumplings. Juicy and sumptuous, these may now be the best in town since China Jen has moved out of Roseville.
The soups are probably not for everyone. Evergreen eschews the salt-bombs, with a broad range of offerings that have strong aromatic, almost medicinal qualities. You could almost think of them as palette cleansers if the bowls weren't so large. I wound up taking most of my stewed squid soup home, but the wife downed her tasty egg drop, a cut above the typical slimy fists of Campbell's-chicken colored nonsense.
That I have gotten this far without mentioning Evergreen's hallmark is a pretty positive sign. But yeah, the place has upwards of 70 vegetarian options, made possible by an almost impossibly deft hand with wheat gluten.
How deft? I very nearly sent my lemongrass mock beef back, for fear that they had brought me real beef. Then I looked at the menu and realized that wasn't even an option. Not only was it the correct dish, but it was the right one in so many ways. I had been somewhat underwhelmed in the past by the three cup tofu, so I was really walloped by the flavor.
You know how some type of nigiri deliver a greater wasabi wallop than others? The same principle holds for mock beef apparently. This is the sort of dish that stops you in your tracks and forces you to contend with it.
You'll be very glad you did (this is now my go-to dish), but it might be hard to taste your wife's chow fun after. The thai-inspired take on this classic had a simple elegance and the noodles had a nice al dente substance to them. Fun chow.
The value here is jaw dropping (our bill came to $33 plus tax and tip). A large group could do a full six courses for under $20 per person. I guess that's pretty authentic. The rest is just excellent.
China Jen Restaurant
2193 Snelling Ave N, Saint Paul, MN 55113
Evergreen Chinese Restaurant
2424 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55404