Weird to the Wise

Hau Vietnamese cuisine is done

The kitchen is out of frogs' legs.

I'm disappointed. Frog is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. My dining companion is wrinkling his nose at the thought of nibbling on the little limbs, but he's never actually had the delicacy before. Trust me, I tell him: Frogs' legs, when absolutely fresh and expertly cooked, have a flavor and texture that's like a cross between young chicken and lobster. The menu at Song Hau offers them swimming in butter -- a byproduct of the French occupancy of Vietnam in the 1800s -- but they're also served in the classic Asian presentation I prefer, stir-fried with bold lemongrass and chiles. We've got to come again, I insist, so he can share this wonder with me.

The lack of legs is to be my only disappointment with Song Hau, one of my new all-time favorite dining destinations. The recently opened Vietnamese restaurant at 43rd Avenue and Bethany Home stocks the other exotic ingredients I enjoy and can't find anywhere else in town: lotus stem, jellyfish, sea cucumber, fish balls, raw squid. Yes, these can be startling ingredients for the uninitiated, but they're beautiful to those brave enough to take the plunge.

Owner Sue Ong (right) and son Dien Do have good reason to smile over Song Hau's food.
Jackie Mercandetti
Owner Sue Ong (right) and son Dien Do have good reason to smile over Song Hau's food.

Details

Frogs' legs: $6.99
Lotus, jellyfish, shrimp
salad: $7.99
Noodle stir fry: $6.99
623-847-7049. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Tea Light Cafe
Spring Rolls : $4.50
Banh mi: $3.50
Chicken pho: $ 7

7000 East Mayo Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480-538-1600. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I'm overjoyed, but not stunned, to have found Song Hau where I did -- in a run-down strip mall in the West Valley. This area of our city, while long lamented as being deprived of high-end eateries, is becoming a treasure trove of ethnic rich restaurants. It's particularly abundant with Asian fare -- Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and, yes, Vietnamese.

What a weird, wonderful week it's been. During the same short span of seven days that brought me Song Hau, I've come across a second surprise I can't wait to share: another Vietnamese eatery. But this cafe is in a completely unexpected location -- north Scottsdale. Yes, north Scottsdale, home of overpriced steak houses, glitzy nightclubs, and very little that could truly be called ethnic. Yet now Tea Light Cafe has opened, and with it a ravishing menu of authentic specialties like banh mi (Asian sandwiches), goi cuon (cold rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp and cilantro) and pho (noodle soup). The cafe sits in a quiet corner of the Scottsdale 101 mall, home of the glitzy Harkins Ciné Capri, the upscale Home Depot spin-off Expo, and the trendy-terrible Elephant Bar chain restaurant (reassuring motto of mass American consumer quality: "Elephant Size Portions").

I drag my frog-phobic friend there for lunch, gushing over how great it is to find banh mi thit nguoi -- liver and ham sandwich -- in my culturally challenged neighborhood. He just looks at me across the table, and mumbles something about having once tried something that looked like goi cuon at the Cheesecake Factory.

It's more than personal greed that makes me so happy to find Song Hau and Tea Light. I truly hope that these two new places will encourage more diners to explore Vietnamese dining. Born from an innovative marriage of French and Chinese cooking techniques, this is one of the world's most fascinating cuisines.

My friend is curious when I order Song Hau's goi tom thit sua ngo sen (salad). He admits that on his own, he would have stuck to our other appetizer, cha gio, crispy light egg rolls that we wrap in lettuce and dunk in sweet-and-sour fish sauce (nuoc mam). But when the salad arrives, he immediately sees the joy in experimenting. The colorful mound has to be eaten to be understood, a complex recipe of lotus stem, jellyfish, shrimp and pork capped with chopped peanuts, cilantro and cucumber. The dish is lightly sour in its vinegar marinade, sweetly fishy, rubbery with jelly strips, crunchy and cold all at once.

Afraid I'll scare off my dining companion, I describe another dish as chow mein. Actually, it's a massive plate of hu tieu ap chao xao thap cam -- an intricate recipe of battered shrimp, squid, crab, sea cucumber, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp and shrimp balls, celery, Asian mushrooms, onion, broccoli, water chestnut, on choy, carrot, green pepper and baby corn in a silky white sauce over golden griddled flat noodles. Why ask? Just eat, and enjoy.

Please, consider banh xeo nothing more intimidating than a crispy crepe, a savory yellow pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, sliced shrimp and roasted pork. Ca luoi trau chien do nuoc mam gung is simply wonderfully moist and flaky flounder, served whole, lightly breaded, fried and anointed with pungent ginger fish sauce. And how can anyone excuse Red Lobster fish as a bargain when Song Hau's beautiful plate can be had for just $8.99?

Tea Light Cafe is a quieter introduction to the Vietnamese concept. This is fast food, housed in a small store, and it fits in well in north Scottsdale, with a wild paint job of mint green, neon yellow, lavender, lilac, peach and orange. The tables are periwinkle framed with blond wood, and the order counter is topped in stainless steel. It's sparkling clean, flooded with bamboo plants. The staffers are courteous and they bring our food to our table.

My friend is immediately at home. This time, I'm the one who's surprised. I go in expecting obnoxious gringo-ized Vietnamese (like what Tokyo Express has done to Japanese cuisine with its sugary teriyaki gunk). I leave giddy -- 99 percent of what Tea Light is doing is dead-on real. This family-run operation isn't pandering to its zip code or falling into the fast-food trap of cutting corners on quality.

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