Tammy Wong’s first year as a restaurant owner was a difficult one.
The tiny kitchen of the noodle shop her family purchased in the mid-’80s — just across Nicollet Avenue from the current Rainbow Chinese location — had only one drain, making cleaning the restaurant a constant struggle. The pipes froze that winter.
Sales during the week were typically slow. On a good day they brought in $250, Wong said.
Still, Wong and her family managed to get by.
Wong attracted late-night business by staying open after midnight. And about once a month members of the local Vietnamese community brought in a singer and filled the place for an evening.
The perseverance paid off in the second year. As more and more people discovered the little Chinese place with the late-night hours, word trickled back to Jeremy Iggers, then restaurant critic for the Star Tribune.
Back when Asian noodle soups still were exotic fare in these parts, a positive review from Iggers drew long lines to Rainbow Chinese. Two decades later, it’s one of the longest-surviving restaurants on Eat Street.
Wong is a devoted farmers market shopper and also grows her own fresh produce in two plots at the Soo Line Community Garden along the Midtown Greenway. That emphasis on fresh, local ingredients finds its way into her cooking at the restaurant, as well.
Wong never went to cooking school, but her skills in the kitchen were good enough to land her a job catering meals for Japanese exchange students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design back in the early 1990s.
The stint was a success, and led to Wong running the college’s cafeteria for several years — even while she kept Rainbow Chinese open and raised her children.
Also a Whittier resident — she lives only a few blocks from the restaurant — Wong expressed a commitment to maintaining the health of all the businesses along Eat Street, not just Rainbow Chinese.
“Some people might think of it as competition, but I don’t always look at it that way,” she said. “I always think competition is good.”
Prices: Appetizers $4–$11; entrees $8–$17
Hours: 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Monday–Thursday; 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.–11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Address: 2739 Nicollet Ave. S.
When customers ask Tammy Wong what makes her sweet and sour sauce so tasty, her response is simple: “It’s seasonal.”
Not the answer you might expect, considering sweet and sour sauce is ubiquitous on Chinese menus, with little variation from restaurant to restaurant. But at Rainbow Chinese, it might vary from winter to summer.
Instead of relying on food coloring and cornstarch to produce a thick, orange-red sauce — the standard at most restaurants — Wong relies on squash and pumpkins from local farmer’s markets to thicken and color her sauce. When those are out of season, she adds carrots to a base of vinegar and sugar.
Wong is just as proud of her other sauces, all made in-house from her own recipes. One unusual but popular creation is her gluten-free tamarind sauce, made for customers with dietary restrictions.
What does Eat Street mean to you?
“I think it’s important to be able to go to one area and to taste many different things,” Wong said. “We want to have more interesting, ethnic restaurants come to the neighborhood, and I think we’re moving forward that way.”