The Ho Chi Menu Trail

Super Dragon, 1212 East Northern, Phoenix, 602-997-1685. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.

I had great hopes for Super Dragon, a new Chinese restaurant that recently took over the spot formerly occupied by Big Wong II. After all, I'd heard a chef from Great Wall, a topnotch Chinese restaurant on the west side, was running the kitchen.

But a dispiriting run through the unimaginative menu dashed my expectations. At Super Dragon, I'm compelled to report, it's Asia vu all over again.

Nam's apple pie: Dong A co-owner Vuoch "Voi" Chhor gives customers what pho.
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Nam's apple pie: Dong A co-owner Vuoch "Voi" Chhor gives customers what pho.

Check out the tables, clear evidence that Super Dragon isn't aiming at homesick natives. They're set with Western cutlery, and adorned with cloth napkins and heavy tablecloths. The sparely decorated place itself doesn't exude much character, either, ethnic or otherwise.

The menu? It's the bland leading the bland. After I looked it over, I asked the proprietor why it seemed so, well, dull. She confided that the chef had scaled back and toned down the offerings to account for neighborhood tastes. "People are afraid of some dishes," she explained, pointing to XO string beans and croquette scallops and shrimp on the small "House Specialties" part of the menu. And, as if on cue, two seconds later I heard the people next to me order egg rolls, cashew chicken and sweet-and-sour pork -- with the sauce on the side!

With customers like that, it's no wonder the chef doesn't seem to get very excited about most everything here. Soups are innocuous. The hot-and-sour seafood soup barely had a pulse, while the won ton soup was even less lively. Two other starters, barbecued spare ribs and steamed dumplings, also fell flat.

A few noteworthy dishes make their way onto the menu. Chicken Lettuce Wrapped is oddly worded, but there's nothing odd about the lettuce fronds tastily heaped with diced chicken and veggies, invigorated with hoisin sauce. Walnut prawns -- crunchy honeyed nuts paired with firm shrimp in a creamy sauce -- have yin and yang working for them. Eggplant is outstanding: chunks of wonderfully flavorful Japanese eggplant in a garlic sauce that's much milder than advertised. And chow fun, a simple rice noodle dish, shows that simple doesn't have to mean bland.

Too bad the kitchen doesn't get that message often enough. A couple of chicken dishes recommended by the proprietor -- sesame chicken and Hunan chicken -- could cure insomnia. I guess these are the kind of dishes she figures Super Dragon's customers will like. Twin mushrooms and bok choy, a vegetarian recommendation, also suffers from the blahs, done in by a snoozy sauce.

Despite management's fears, there's nothing terribly threatening about the lethargic House Specialties. XO string beans promised Chinese long beans, but our lackluster dish was prepared with ordinary supermarket green beans. Sizzling black-pepper steak, chewy strips of beef tossed with green pepper and onions, is only partially redeemed by a decent black bean sauce. And the most frightening part of the croquette scallops and shrimp is how uninteresting this mix of seafood and veggies really is. But the croquettes, unexpectedly scrumptious fried milk fritters, showed untapped talent.

So on my third visit, I mapped out a strategy to get quality Chinese food here. How? I asked for it. Putting aside the menu, I asked if the chef could whip up a platter of steamed chicken and prepare a whole fish. He came sprinting out of the kitchen to express his assurances that he could.

First, though, he advised us to order deep-fried crispy tofu as an appetizer. (It's on the menu.) I couldn't believe how good they were, eight ethereally light pieces of tofu, in a delicate, tempuralike crust. The chef clearly had his heart in them.

The two entrees had that same quality. "You're smart," said the proprietor, as she set down the juicy steamed half-chicken. "Most Americans want their chicken fried." Not if they ate this, I thought, as I dipped the sweet, succulent poultry in a snappy ginger sauce. The gorgeous whole sea bass, steamed to flaky perfection and ornamented with a riveting ginger scallion sauce, was equally impressive.

Eating off Super Dragon's menu is a lot like driving a Corvette to the corner supermarket: Considering what's under the hood, you're not getting your share of thrills. Someday, maybe Super Dragon will throw caution aside, and open up the throttle.

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