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If you're feeling adventurous, go for the jaleang ube, a very heavy and very sweet blend of purple yam, coconut, milk, butter and cheese. Bibingkang malagkit, a ball of sticky rice mortared with coconut milk, is equally rich. But halo-halo takes the risk-taker's prize: Red beans and tropical fruits sit at the botton of a sundae glass, topped with crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk. Don't look for this in your supermarket freezer, unless you live in Manila.
Oriental Gourmet is not for everyone. It doesn't try to be. And for us ethnic food lovers who crave the widest variety of tastes, that's its principal charm.
Fuji Express, 1440 South Country Club, Mesa, 969-6868. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
You know those movies where the frowzy, plain-looking heroine is persuaded to remove her glasses, let down her hair and put on a form-fitting dress? To everyone's astonishment, she turns out to be a knockout.
You have to work your way past comparable obstacles at Fuji Express to find the culinary beauty hidden beneath the drab exterior.
First, there's the misleading name, which suggests Japanese fast food. Second, there's the nondescript fast-food look--an Order Here counter and no discernible charm. There's also the piped-in country music. Thousands of meals out have proven to me that you're as likely to utter the words "great food" and "Billy Ray Cyrus" in the same breath as "matzo ball soup" and "Ayatollah Khomeini."
Finally, there's the menu itself. It's a dismaying list of Asian fast-food combo plates I make it my business to avoid: teriyaki beef, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork.
To uncover the eye-opening Taiwanese gems, you need to do a little detective work. Find the English-language menu posted on the side wall. It lists about 15 noodle soups, for which Taiwan is famous. Also, get the amiable proprietor to translate and explain the dishes written out in Chinese on the marker board alongside. Then order just about anything from these two sources.
It's not soup weather yet, but these meals-in-a-bowl are worth sweating over. The pork-and-pickled-vegetable model features a meaty, peppery broth flavored with scallions and cilantro, and lots of noodles. The milder duck soup brings a surprising amount of duck on the bone for the $3.95 tag. And the house special soup comes swimming with bits of chicken, pork and squid, two unshelled shrimp, some dreaded "krab," thin rice noodles and shredded cabbage and carrot.
When I asked the owner why she didn't write out the Chinese menu in English, she had a reasonable explanation. Words like "intestine" and "gizzard" apparently make Mesans jittery. (Me, too, sometimes.) But most of these dishes are much too good to be left only to Chinese readers.
My favorite is the gorgeous pan-fried oyster platter. It's the Taiwanese version of a Hangtown Fry: a big plate of oysters, dredged in rice flour, combined with egg, greens and scallions. You probably won't find this at your neighborhood chop suey parlor.
There are two kinds of dumplings. The ones that are skillet fried come sizzling, stuffed with chicken, pork and veggies. Meat dumplings are even better, ground beef coated with rice flour and moistened in a pungent tomato sauce.
The Chinese menu also offers soups you won't find on the English-language soup list. Check out the shrimp and beef soup, at $5.95 the most expensive dish here. It's a spicy, robust broth with lots of ethnic zip, certainly nothing you'd expect to find in a Mesa shopping center fast-food spot.
If noodles turn you on, there's a reliable chow fun, starchy rice noodles flecked with chicken and bean sprouts. But the jia zhang mien is a more entertaining option. It's beef and rice noodles, in a unique sauce whose flavors can't be pinned down by Western vocabulary.
Bing, a Taiwanese sweet fashioned much like Oriental Gourmet's halo-halo, is a refreshing hoot. The proprietor fills a big plate with a pile of red and green beans, along with two kinds of odd gelatin flavors that clearly didn't come from a Jell-O box. Everything is topped by a huge mound of shaved ice, on which she pours sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk. Asian sweets don't usually translate very well in the West, and bing is obviously not for everyone.
Most people are going to feel more comfortable with Fuji Express's tame steam-table Asian dishes than they are with its hearty Taiwanese fare. But if you've made it this far through the column, you're probably not one of them.