Diverse Taste Scenario

Little Saigon, 1588 West Montebello (Christown Mall), Phoenix, 864-7582. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A hundred years ago, in America's biggest cities, new neighborhoods with names like Little Italy and Germantown sprang up, home to swarms of late 19th-century European immigrants looking for a better life.

These days, in America's biggest cities, you can find new neighborhoods with names like Little Saigon and Koreatown, where waves of late 20th-century Asian arrivals have settled, looking for a better life.

The Valley hasn't quite yet reached the level of ethnic density and cosmopolitan diversity you see in this country's largest urban centers. But the immigrants are coming here, and they're coming faster than you think.

Less than a decade ago, you could have counted the combined number of Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants in this town on two hands, and had enough fingers left over to flash a peace sign and a couple of thumbs up.

Not anymore. These days you'd need not only all your own fingers and toes to do the addition, but also the digits of several friends. From Mesa to the west side, budget-friendly Vietnamese restaurants are blooming like desert wildflowers after a rainy winter. And our appetite for raw fish seems to be almost insatiable--at least a dozen new sushi parlors have opened over the past few years.

Now, it's one thing for new ethnic restaurants to open. But it's another thing altogether for good ethnic restaurants to open. Too often, Valley Asian restaurants tone down their fare, in order to appeal to unadventurous local palates. Anyone who's ever encountered a pu pu appetizer platter or cream cheese sushi roll knows what I'm talking about.

Happily, folks who wander into Little Saigon or Sushi Mishima won't know what I'm talking about. With their wonderful fare, both of these new neighborhood spots show how ethnic diversity can improve the quality of city life.

Little Saigon, a full-service restaurant tucked away in a corner of Christown Mall's food court, isn't even a year old. But the proprietors clearly have their act together--the place is pretty; the staff is friendly and helpful; and, in the best ethnic-restaurant tradition, the food is cheap, plentiful and tasty.

The room has a serenity that's out of step with the shopping-mall surroundings. There's a tiled pool with a graceful footbridge arched over it. Tables are lined with linen and a double-necked turquoise vase with red silk roses. A big aquarium is stocked with several species of exotic fish.

The food is equally serene. Little Saigon has a very extensive menu--more than 100 dishes. Most of them are topnotch.

Vietnam's food differs substantially from its neighbors'. Detractors might note it lacks the aromatic wallop of Thai dishes, the subtlety of Chinese cuisine or the bold garlic and chile flavors found in Korea. But there's much to appreciate in the clean, light and healthful simplicity of Vietnamese fare.

Little Saigon's appetizers will give you a good idea. Yes, you can order deep-fried egg rolls. But why would you want to, when there's goi cuon: shrimp, barbecued pork, veggies and noodles wrapped in rice paper. Dip it in peanut sauce, and savor.

Banh khot are marvelous: seven oval-shaped, bite-size doughy pancakes, tinged with coconut and topped with a shrimp. They come with a plateful of greenery--lettuce, basil, mint and cilantro. Make a greenery sandwich of the banh khot, and then dunk it in nuoc nam, the ubiquitous, salty, fish-flavored Vietnamese condiment that accompanies every dish. It's better than just about any deep-fried munchie you've ever had.

So is the rice flour crepe, a big, crispy pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Split this two or three ways--if you don't, you'll have to call it a night even before you hit the main dishes.

Soup season will be here soon, and Little Saigon's models will get you primed. The sturdy noodle broth with shrimp, pork and squid delivers old-fashioned comfort, while the shark fin soup is tantalizingly different.

The main dishes show a lot of spunk. Charbroiled ground beef, wrapped in grape leaves and skewered, delivers an extraordinary taste explosion. At $6.95, this platter costs about as much as a movie ticket, and it's better than anything now playing. Lemongrass chicken is probably the strongest-flavored dish on the menu, and it's punched up even more by a slightly spicy sauce. The dish labeled "Sauteed Squid" doesn't sound very intriguing, but the kitchen does it impressively. The thick pieces of squid aren't at all chewy. And while beef with bok choy also seems deceptively plain, it's not: The tender strips of stir-fried beef teamed with baby bok choy in a spoon-lickin' brown sauce will keep you interested until the last bite.  

If you want to combine dinner and do-it-yourself entertainment, order #76. The server will bring over a platter of raw, thin-sliced beef and shrimp, a mound of butter and a portable grill. Start the fire, get the butter sizzling and begin cooking. When the beef and shrimp are done, stuff them in rice paper, add greenery and dunk in the fish sauce. Life will seem good, indeed.

Another noteworthy option is the combination fire pot, a Sterno-fired platter heavily stocked with fish, shrimp, squid, shrimp balls, beef balls and a ton of veggies, in a mild broth. Unless you come here with a party of eight, the small size will be sufficient.

Shrimp lovers should circle #82, sauteed prawns in a zesty hot fish sauce, bubbling in a covered clay pot. It's exotic, but not too far out. Noodle lovers can also find satisfaction. You'll get uncomplicated satisfaction from both the Vietnamese version of chow fun, thick rice noodles heaped with shrimp, pork and chicken, and the basic rice vermicelli spiffed up with shredded pork.

One disappointment. That's the charbroiled shrimp, skewered on a piece of sugar cane. This dish can be a knockout, but the shrimp here tasted old and rubbery.

Among the more exciting elements of a Vietnamese meal are the beverages. Adventurers might consider gulping down preserved salted plum soda, red bean coconut drink or mung bean with tapioca. The risk-averse will enjoy fresh lemonade.

Dessert? Who needs it? Especially when there's Vietnamese coffee, filtered tableside into a cup filled with several inches of sweetened condensed milk. The combustible brew of sugar, fat and caffeine delivers one of the best legal jolts you can get.

Little Saigon is near the top of its ethnic-restaurant division. This is one Vietnamese experience you won't mind being drafted for.

Sushi Mishima, 5534 East Thomas, Phoenix, 956-8799. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight.

Since it opened earlier this year on the low-rent fringes of Arcadia, Sushi Mishima has quietly been building by word of mouth. Neighborhood folks have been discovering the talents of its chef/proprietor. Sure, Mishima can do sushi, but that's not all he can do.

Set in a shopping strip storefront that used to be a hamburger joint, Sushi Mishima doesn't look like much from the outside. It doesn't look like much from the inside, either. There's a display of sake cups and decorative plates. Some nondescript hangings line the walls. The five tables are topped with green-checked tablecloths. The chef seems partial to the music of Andy Williams and the Four Lads--he keeps the radio tuned to the station that plays their ancient hits. Most of the action centers on the eight-seat sushi bar.

That's Mishima's domain, and he rules. The usual sushi suspects are first-rate, and they're noticeably less expensive than those served at glitzier Valley addresses. Toro, halibut, salmon, unagi and octopus get you stoked. So do the buttery sea urchin hand roll and spicy tuna roll.

Other nibbles also shine, particularly the ravishing albacore salad. You get lots of glorious tuna, bathed in sprightly kiwi sauce. Freshly breaded, deep-fried calamari is another winner, with just the right texture. But don't bother ordering the potato croquettes. No, they're not bad--they're actually plump and crispy. It's just that on each of my visits, the chef served up an order on the house.

But Mishima brings more than a Japanese background to his kitchen. Like just about every other Japanese restaurant owner in this town, he did a stint at Sushi on Shea. But he also spent several years cooking in Italy. That European background finds a creative outlet here.

There always seems to be an enormous pot with a shiso-tinged red wine sauce simmering on the stove. And it's put to good use. For a daily special, the chef took two small lamb chops, coated them with salt and pepper and pan-fried them rare. In another vessel, he reduced some red wine sauce, adding a mound of butter and mushrooms. Finally, he placed the chops in a clear Pyrex bowl and poured the liquid over. Believe me, whatever this dish lacked in traditional authenticity, it more than made up for with flavor. It's so good I almost fell off my sushi bar chair in a swoon. The price--$7.50--may also have made me lightheaded.

Another special, steak and king crab, is almost as good. The chef grills and slices a tender piece of sirloin, briefly sautes cabbage to a crunch, and throws the beef and cabbage on a sizzling iron skillet. Then he bathes them in a mouth-watering wine-soy-beef demi-glaze. Meanwhile, in another chafing dish, you get king crab dressed with garlic butter. With a couple of sushi nibbles, just one shared beef-crab platter should take care of two appetites.  

Hang around for dessert--it's free. The chef carves up pineapple, melon and oranges, a light, refreshing way to end the meal.

Sushi Mishima doesn't have a fancy address, a designer interior or a trendy menu. But if you're partial to first-rate sushi and some intriguing Euro-Japanese dishes served at very reasonable prices, it's a good day in the neighborhood.

Little Saigon:
Banh khot
in hot fish sauce
Beef in grape leaves

Sushi Mishima:
Fried calamari
Albacore salad
Beef and crab platter


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