Asian Café Express serves up Hong Kong-style five-spice beef and hot pots

Using their noodles: Susan and Michael Leung turn out top-notch Chinese fare at Asian Café Express.
Jackie Mercandetti

Don't blame the Olympics.

I've been craving some good Chinese food for a lot longer than the past couple of weeks that we've been bombarded with coverage of the games. If anything, TV segments about bizarre Beijing street foods have somewhat lessened my appetite for it. (I'm adventurous, but I'm no Andrew Zimmern!)

On the other hand, after seeing how much high-calorie grub Michael Phelps has to eat just to fuel his competitive swimming career, perhaps I've gotten a little hungrier by osmosis.

Not a day too late, I checked out Asian Café Express, and now I'm psyched. Just the thought of eating there again makes me want to sprint to Mesa.

Despite the name, this is no generic pan-Asian fast food joint. Not even close. It's exceptionally tasty, unbelievably cheap, authentic Hong Kong-style cuisine. Behind it all is chef Michael Leung, former owner of central Phoenix's Gourmet House of Hong Kong. Considering the fine reputation Leung created for himself at his previous establishment, I'm surprised he gave his latest place such a vague moniker.

And despite outward appearances — Asian Café Express is an unremarkable little storefront in a sleepy, half-vacant strip mall at Main Street and Dobson Road — the place can get bustling at night, when Chinese 20-somethings fill the tables.

In a couple of months, I expect it to get a lot busier, when Mekong Plaza finally opens right across the street. The 100,000-square-foot Asian-themed development, whose construction in a former Target has been ongoing for more than a year and a half, will be home to restaurants, shops, and a huge Asian grocery store. Better to scope out Asian Café Express now, before the neighborhood onslaught.

Inside, the restaurant has the quirky charms of an old-school Chinatown joint, except that it's much brighter, and very clean (the seats are even covered in plastic wrap). Photos and handwritten signs promoting dishes in English and Chinese are tacked onto pale pink walls above booths on either side of the room. Tiny Chinese dragon dolls sway from the ceiling, a plump lucky cat waves from one corner, and a pair of giant lobsters grace the space above a condiment counter. There's even a nunchaku display in the back.

I have to mention the kind service at Asian Café Express. Specifically, I'm thinking of co-owner Susan Leung, who expressed both disbelief and approval when my dining companions and I bypassed the first couple pages of the menu (a rundown of typical Americanized Chinese food) to order the Hong Kong specialties.

We were intrigued by the "satay turlip pork skin," guessing that turlip was actually turnip, and she almost gave a disclaimer when we ordered it.

"You eat pork skin?" she said, gently warning us about the Chineseness of our choice.

Oh, yes, we assured her.

We got a similar caveat about the five-spice beef, which is served chilled.

Great, we'll take it.

She smiled and told us it was one of her favorites. From then on, she was keen to guide us in our ordering.

We'd already figured out what we wanted, but it sure wasn't easy narrowing down our selections. The menu isn't numbered, but if it were, I'd guess there are perhaps 200 different items, with scores of different stews and sautés, nine kinds of fried rice, a couple dozen hot pots, congee, and so many kinds of noodles — egg noodle and rice noodle soups, lo mein, chow mein, and chow fun. There's a handful of items from Taiwan and Southeast Asia, and even spaghetti.

Among the appetizers, the satay turlip, er, turnip pork skin and five-spice beef were some of our favorites. The former contained soft, delicate pieces of stewed pork skin and thick slices of tender cooked turnip in a savory pork broth. If you've ever had Japanese oden with daikon, this was similar, only with a touch of heat from red chile flakes. The beef dish was delicious, thin slices of meat and a tangy-sweet soy-based sauce that had a faint whiff of Chinese five-spice powder.

We were also crazy about the chili salt chicken wings, a plate of crunchy, golden fried wings tossed with fried garlic, scallions, and a satisfying dose of salt. They didn't last long. Steamed pork and scallion dumplings, served with salty soy dip, were blah in comparison, cooked until their wrappers were too soft.

Chili sauce dumplings were far better, not only because they were perfectly cooked, but also because they were doused in red chile oil and scallions. And what can I say about the pork and bitter melon soup? It was more about clear broth than either ingredient, something I wasn't compelled to finish.

Noodles were a highlight. Black pepper sauce shrimp chow fun wasn't actually peppery, but instead had a luscious black bean sauce, green bell peppers, carrots, and some big, juicy shrimp tossed in with the plump noodles. A bit of pan-fried browning gave the noodles an extra flavor boost. Singapore-style fried noodles was a big portion of rice vermicelli tossed with shrimp, slivers of pork, carrots, cabbage, green bell pepper, and bean sprouts, with an addicting curry sauce to turn the whole thing a deep yellow color.

My first bite of beef with mushrooms didn't dazzle me — that is, until I bit into a chunk of fresh garlic. While tender slices of beef, fresh baby bok choy, and flavorful Chinese black mushrooms tasted fine, it really was the garlic that made the dish interesting. As for "yellow leek bean sprout and shredded pork," it didn't contain leeks, just lots of crisp yellow mung bean sprouts and succulent shreds of pork — a tasty, unlikely combination of two ingredients I love.

There were many tempting hot pot varieties, but we went with a classic: ma po tofu. It was easily enough food for two people, filled to the rim with a spicy, piping-hot concoction. Silky cubes of tofu cooked with mushrooms, red chile, scallions, ground pork, onion, and lettuce amounted to an extremely filling dish.

That would've been plenty, but we couldn't leave without trying a whole fish, prepared one of six different ways. We decided on the black bean sauce whole fish, a whole tilapia covered in a heap of cooked lettuce, green bell pepper, and onion. The meat was moist, and the black bean sauce was some of the best I've ever had — an incredible find for $7.99.

It might take me until the 2012 Olympics to eat my way through the entire menu at Asian Café Express, but considering how affordable and craveable it is, I'll sure have fun along the way.

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