By Heather Hoch
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By Laura Hahnefeld
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So now, just a few days later, my buddy and I are back, scarfing an oversize appetizer. We're sucking down a giant bowl of soup. We're digging among three full-size entrees, bowls of white rice, and two big bottles of iced tea. God, we're pigs, but we're so happy.
Chu is one hardworking man, we find out over our lunch. He's taking a gamble on hard-core downtown, he explains, struggling to bring us a mix of food, art and music. He thinks this area of the Valley is ready for a "hip" downtown, and if this new downtown can bring more food like his vegetarian spinach bun appetizers, I'd say he's on to something. They look like flowers, fashioned of squishy white bread dough stuffed with fresh minced spinach and steamed in a moist tart tumble. They're so exquisite, dipped in soy-shallot, that my pal takes home the leftovers even after I've gutted them with my chopsticks.
He's nervous about the weekend, he admits, seeing as it's a "First Friday," meaning the monthly convergence of Art Detour aficionados who trawl downtown galleries and will descend upon his tiny, three-room cafe. It'll be a zoo, he says, requiring him to move his furniture out into the front yard to open up restaurant space, fence off his parking lot to accommodate his live music, and crank in his kitchen with even more energy than his typical 18-hour-a-day schedule already requires (he's the only chef for his place, and declines even to skip home to his Scottsdale townhouse for a daily nap since he "loses an hour in transit"). Chu is hoping that guests will buy his commissioned art, but only for the artists' benefit, since the restaurateur refuses to take a commission.
602-254-6424. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Is this man a god? I know I'm a believer, drawn in by his seafood bamboo soup, a clear, bright vegetable broth brimming with plump shrimp, crab, silky bamboo shoots, fresh spinach, carrots, bok choy and tiny nameko-style mushrooms. I let my friend finish the vegetables and meats in our entrees, while I savor the sauces straight. Many of the entrees are similar in their bodies -- blends of fresh-wokked snow peas, baby corn, onion, mushrooms, bok choy, steamed broccoli, carrots, bean sprouts and sometimes pineapple. We can add in our choice of tender chicken breast, quality beef, shrimp or terrific deep-fried tofu. But Chu, born and raised in Hong Kong, does more with sauces than many of our finest Valley chefs. Curry is finely gritty as it should be and too often is not, creamy rich, imbued with coconut and like luscious, liquid silk. Black dragon bean sauce has me licking it from my plate, it's so clear and clean and infused with real bean flavor, not cornstarch. A Spicy Saigon sauce positively knocks me out, so intense it is with sweet basil, mint, and lots of deliciously cruel chiles. There's spicy citron garlic sauce. Dark garlic sauce, made with real crushed garlic (I see the ingredients alongside Chu's handcrafted stove, an interesting creation of a gas range cooled with running water). There's spicy peanut sauce, spicy kung pao sauce (hot!) and a sweet-and-sour pineapple sauce that finally makes me understand why anyone would eat this sugary concoction on purpose.
Chu is smiling as we cart out our tanker truck of leftovers. He's memorized what we've eaten, from our first visit through our last. He's already got a menu prepared for the next time we come. And we're going to need a bigger table.