On the northbound 84 or A Line, after going under a railroad, over a highway and two more railroads, you will end up on Como Avenue. Café 99 lies just a few steps from the bus stop. The location is far from the most romantic of roads, and far from the best place to watch snow.
I have developed a love-hate relationship with this semi-authentic Chinese restaurant over the years. The restaurant tries to cater to every perception of “Chinese food”. While I don’t like this broad appeal, their extensive menu provides lots of excitement. I was surprised by how above-average their sesame chicken is: lightly marinated white chicken deep fried, topped with honey sesame sauce and sesame seeds. Nothing is special, but everything is so proper that it stands out among all other sesame chickens I have tried.
The crown jewel of this place is sauteed potato with green pepper and eggplant, a homestyle classic from the Chinese North, with a more elegant Chinese name that literally translates to Trio of Earth. This simple dish perfectly demonstrates the magic of Chinese Northern cooking, which turns simple ingredients and plain seasonings into absolute delicacies through the control of oven heat and oil temperature, ultimately giving the dish a great texture. Café 99 is the only Chinese restaurant in town to offer this dish, and I am pleased that they usually pull the trick well: the potatoes are crispy on the outside and tender within, the eggplants almost melt in oil and soy sauce, and the green peppers remain juicy and flavorful, thus a scoop down the plate gets you layers of fine taste.
One intriguing menu item is the Chinese crepe, an indescribable and heavenly food harboring loads of nostalgia for Chinese Northerners. While I appreciate Café 99’s effort in remaking these crepes in Minnesota, they fail. The soggy crepes make it obvious that the restaurant doesn’t have a proper crepe pan, and the composition of the dough is too water heavy. Where’s all the sorghum and green bean flours? Can’t ask for too much though.
Whatever I eat at Café 99, I always sit by the window. Como Avenue is grey and gloomy enough to make the restaurant’s warm-colored interior feel like somewhere special. Especially when snow just starts to fall and you look across Como Avenue, the tattoo place and the tattoo removal place blend into one, the insurance broker’s smile blurs up on his shaky billboard, and only one car passed in fifteen minutes. Then you look down at your Szechuan double cooked pork, feel the rising steam from the rice bowl with your palm, and start eating. Then you remember what Mr. Yang, a cook at the restaurant, said when you asked him about life in Minnesota and the Chinese North: from Tianjin to Como Ave, what difference is there? Wherever you go you just live the same life.