By New Times
By Robrt L. Pela
By Lauren Saria and Heather Hoch
By Deborah Sussman
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
It's a short menu -- a compact collection of egg rolls, noodle dishes, soups and sandwiches (no frogs' legs, alas). Yet it's a selection I don't often see -- particularly the banh mi, which is not just a sandwich, but a food craze that's helped define the Vietnamese-American culture. A staple of Vietnamese delis, banh mi is a crusty baguette slathered with homemade mayonnaise and layered with sliced chile, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrot and onion. Fillings sound ordinary: meatball, barbecued beef, pork and ham. Except the meatball is the unfamiliar pressed type found in pho soup, the beef is slices of sweet grilled meat rather than traditional sauce-wet barbecue, the pork comes in balls, and the ham consists of three varieties piled atop each other, cold cuts of spongy consistency and a smear of steamed pâté. Only shredded chicken is close to what most diners will expect. No matter the shock -- after a few tentative bites, my friend can't stop exclaiming about it all, "Hey, this is good!"
Whatever the variety of a menu, my acid test for any Vietnamese restaurant is its pho -- that distinctive soup based on a clear but complex blend of onion, beef bone, ginger, carrot, cinnamon and star anise that is lovingly simmered for up to 12 hours. Song Hau offers nine types; Tea Light has two. All are good, particularly Song's pho tai with rare slices of beef, and Tea Light's chicken model, generous with carved breast meat, shallots, onion, and my add-ins of cilantro, mint, jalapeño, bean sprouts and lime.
"It's soup," says my companion, pulling at clumps of sticky skinny noodles with his chopsticks. "Just really good soup."
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.
Trust me, I tell him. Go stick your face a big steaming bowl of hu tieu my tho kho nuoc banh dai and savor the elaborate elegance of clear noodle soup with sliced pork, ground pork, shrimp, squid, sliced liver, hard-boiled quail egg, fish ball and shrimp ball. Don't think about it -- live and learn.
Then, we'll come back for the frog.