PRETTY GOOD, BUT NOT SO HOT

It's too bad, because this is a really nice-looking place. Tucked away in an unprepossessing strip mall on 16th Street, the restaurant raises hopes in your taste buds by immediately satisfying your eyes.

Red-bright red-is the dominant color here. The ceiling, with its ornate designs, is worth a crick in the neck. Suspended from it are elaborate Chinese lanterns, while the walls show off Chinese artwork.

And the first sight of our food seemed so promising. The hot-and-sour soup had satisfying chunks of pork, tofu and vegetables swimming in it, and even offered up several large shrimp. But the key element of this dish-its pungent, sinus-clearing kick-never showed up. This is how the soup would have tasted, I thought, if I had a cold.

Location Info

Map

Big Wong Restaurant

616 W. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85013

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Central Phoenix

Gourmet House of Hong Kong

1438 E. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85006

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Central Phoenix

Unfortunately, the other dishes never got my taste buds in gear, either. It's true that after years of spicy eating I might need more of a jump-start than others to move out of neutral, but no one else at the table could detect any heat, either.

But unlike Hunan Yuan, where flavorful, mouth-pleasing food easily compensated for the unfulfilled promise of fire, Golden Phoenix served some pretty bland concoctions. The smallish portion of double-cooked sliced pork had little imagination or flavor. Strips of sauteed pork surrounded by water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and green onions rested in an utterly uninteresting brown sauce. This tasted as if it were poured from a ten-gallon container of Double-Cooked Pork in a Drum. It wasn't bad, but it was several rungs short of good.

In this restaurant, too, we tried family bean curd. But there was more in the concept than the execution. Thin strips of sauteed bean curd nestled against scallions, bits of pork, water chestnuts and some excellent black mushrooms. But the dish was less than the sum of its parts. The "hot spicy sauce" the menu promised added nothing to the components. The dish never woke up.

The kung pao chicken was completely ordinary. Pieces of diced chicken, green pepper and a few peanuts. That was it. No detectable spiciness, and little detectable flavor. The kitchen seemed to take small interest in its presentation or taste.

For our final dish I had to take the blame, since I had fair warning. The ruby shrimp comes advertised as "fresh shrimp sauteed with diced water chestnuts, green peas, carrots in a spicy ketchup sauce."

"Ketchup sauce?" I figured something had to be lost in translation.
When the dish arrived, we saw lots of lovely, large shrimp, covered with what looked like canned peas and carrots, lapped up against-you guessed it-a sea of ketchup sauce. I don't know about you, but my idea of a perfect marriage of tastes is not shrimp and ketchup. This isn't yin and yang, it's Abbott and Costello.

Like Hunan Yuan, Golden Phoenix holds the line on prices. Only the seafood and duck dishes cost more than $6.95. And in all fairness, you need to remember that its menu, like Hunan Yuan's, offers five unspicy dishes for every supposedly fiery entree it lists. It's clear that neither restaurant is ready to stake its existence solely on the hot dishes of inland and northern China. We Valley fire-eaters still have to wait for the fire next time.

WITH THE HELP OF HIS ANCESTORS, FIFE TAK... v2-19-92

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