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Naturally, all dishes are accompanied by kim chee--the hot, spicy, garlic-packed pickled cabbage that's Korea's national condiment--as well as several other pickled, garlic-packed veggies like bean sprouts, radish, seaweed, turnip and squash. If your group is traveling in one car, you'll need to eat some in self-defense.
Whether you're a homesick native pining for dishes from the Old Country, or just a hungry local looking for ethnic-restaurant adventure, you can count on Korean Restaurant's Seoul food to send you home with garlic on your breath, sweat on your brow and a smile on your face.
Best Hong Kong Dining, 1116 South Dobson, Mesa, 655-8262. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Today's multiple-choice question: You find yourself in a shopping strip that houses a well-stocked Asian grocery, a Vietnamese restaurant, a Vietnamese bakery and a Chinese restaurant in which whole glazed pigs and ducks are hung for your inspection. You are in a) New York b) San Francisco c) Los Angeles d) Mesa.
Just a few years ago, the only people guessing "d" were either the offspring of first cousins or Timothy Leary's happy-hour guests. How times have changed. These days, you can answer "Mesa" in perfect confidence.
Best Hong Kong Dining opened for business last fall, operating out of a storefront that used to be a Thai restaurant. Management has kept the Thai ornaments, but added a few Chinese touches of its own. You can't miss the dangling swine and poultry. Alongside them you'll spot metal chafing trays filled with parts of these animals that your neighborhood supermarket doesn't carry. You'll also notice live seafood cavorting in a fish tank.
If you read Chinese, you'll know immediately what Best Hong Kong Dining is about. Just inside the doorway is a large, framed Chinese ideograph that means "noodle."
The menu tells the story. Unlike most Chinese menus, the one here isn't divided into sections of "Beef," "Pork," "Chicken" and "Vegetables." The headings here read "Chow Mein and Chow Fun," "Noodle Soups," "Lo Mein," "BBQ" and "Chinese Dishes."
The food is wonderfully tasty and astonishingly cheap. If I lived in this neighborhood, it wouldn't pay to eat at home.
The "BBQ" listings are good enough to make you think you're on Mott Street in Manhattan's Chinatown, not South Dobson in Mesa. Meaty, glazed barbecued pork spare ribs are just like the ones Mom used to take out, bone-gnawingly good. If you prefer picking up your pork with chopsticks instead of your hands, you can opt for the sliced barbecued pork in perfect confidence. The meat is fresh, tender and deeply flavored. The kitchen also features a superbly seasoned "Five Spices Roast Chicken," half a bird hacked into pieces and coated with a lip-smacking sauce.
Best Hong Kong Dining's noodles could become an East Valley tourist attraction. Chow fun--wide, starchy rice noodles--is terrific, especially the beef version draped with a pungent black bean sauce. Roast duck lo mein features an enormous pile of thin noodles, heaps of meaty duck and change back from a five. Don't overlook chow mein--it's not what you get at "one from column A, one from column B" places. Fashioned from crispy noodles, the Hong Kong-style chicken chow mein is not a Westernized platter.
The non-noodle dishes are also skillfully crafted. Beef with bitter melon over rice is an eye-opening delight. The combination of flavors has real ethnic flair. Scallops with black bean sauce are also exceptional, a mound of juicy scallops teamed with pepper and onion in an irresistible sauce. Even though it's the most expensive dish on the menu, it's still a bargain at $7.95. And if you order the Chinese broccoli, you get the real Asian-vegetable deal, not the American model. Moistened with a fragrant oyster sauce, this greenery has enough nutrients to last two people a week. At $3.50, it's cheaper than vitamin supplements, and a whole lot tastier.
Oddly enough, the only disappointing dish we encountered was recommended by our waiter. He suggested kung pao shrimp, a dull, undistinguished platter that lacked the hard-hitting flavors we found everywhere else. Maybe he thought it was all our occidental-looking group could handle. (In fact, I was dining with Westerners who'd spent a decade in Hong Kong.) It's common, though, for home-country waiters in ethnic restaurants to steer non-natives away from the more interesting fare. Unless you're a frightened novice, stick with your instincts.
Two more notes: It's hardly soup season, but the kitchen puts together wonderful noodle soups, meals in a bowl like the seafood noodle broth. And cognoscenti can find congee, a glutinous porridge whose charms are an acquired taste I haven't fully acquired.
I've never thought Mesa much of an ethnic-dining destination. But it looks like Best Hong Kong Dining is about to rearrange my navigational charts.
Dolsot bibim bap
Best Hong Kong Dining:
Beef with bitter melon
Five spices roast chicken
Beef chow fun
Roast duck lo mein