You’ve heard of the IHOP, but have you been to the IHOF? The International House of Food, as it’s called, is a small, unassuming diner-style restaurant near Ninth Avenue and Van Buren Street, a squat and boxy cinderblock of a restaurant situated at the slightly fraying western edge of downtown Phoenix.
Maybe you’ve driven past the curiously named restaurant more than once — it’s been a mainstay on Van Buren for something like four years now — and maybe you’ve regarded it with equal amounts of curiosity and skepticism. The bright-red, neat lettering on the side of the building advertises “American, Mexican, Chinese” food, and maybe you’ve wondered whether a kitchen that claims all three cuisines can possibly do any of them any justice.
Or maybe you’re already a weekday regular at the IHOF, lured there by its $3.99 breakfast specials, which are advertised on a sandwich board in front of the restaurant. But if this is the first you’ve ever heard of the IHOF, it’s useful to know that it’s not a destination for clever culinary mash-ups, say, Mexican al pastor married with Chinese xiao long bao. The IHOF, as it turns out, is a good destination for other things, including all-day breakfast plates, Mexican combos with a soft focus on regional dishes, and the kind of unapologetic Chinese-American fare that has made something like orange chicken an icon of American takeout.
The IHOF itself is a small, very friendly, family-run cafe, offering the kind of unself-conscious, hospitable air that makes you want to hang around a little longer than you probably planned. Inside the bare-bones dining room, there is no real decorating scheme to speak of, with the possible exception of a large air-brushed mural, a sprawling desertscape of undulating brown mountains that’s punctuated by a fire-red phoenix rising from billows of clouds and fire. On weeknights, a flat-screen TV on the other side of the dining room is playing some kind of family-friendly fare or other, and someone will probably ask you right away if you would like one of the restaurant’s frothy, fresh-made licuados. The correct answer, if you’re into agua frescas or fruity licuados, is yes — they are served ice-cold, very sweet, foamier at the top than your favorite latte, and sometimes, if you get lucky, there’s a small paper umbrella involved.
The menu is divided, roughly, into thirds: breakfast, Mexican, and Chinese, and the stronger plates seem to come out of the breakfast side of the menu. That’s where you’ll find dishes like breakfast burritos, plump and juicy fried chicken tenders paired with waffles, and great, big buttery omelettes served with buttermilk pancakes. Pretty much everything streams out of the kitchen with impressive speed.
From the breakfast menu, there is something simple and wonderful about the migas with chorizo plate, a sort of extra-cheesy, chorizo-inflected take on chilaquiles. The tender slips of tortilla, tangled up in cheesy curdles of egg, are divine. The best part about the dish is when your fork catches a thick, delicious golden scrap of tortilla that’s been browned and crisped on the griddle.
There are biscuits and gravy, served with a thick country gravy that’s a little too softly seasoned, but the plate is redeemed by a generous supply of extra-snappy, juicy breakfast sausages, and a couple of pillow-soft buttermilk biscuits, engineered to melt in your mouth with what feels like swift, delicious precision.
From the lunch menu, there is the house club sandwich, standard lunchtime fare that is memorable for its careful construction: the white bread is sliced very thinly, toasted to a very fine, shattering crisp, and packed on one end with ham, and crisp bacon on the other. And there is a burger menu — the burgers here tend to be faintly tinged with grill smoke, and nicely seasoned, an achievement that pricier, so-called craft burger bars don’t always get right.
Mexican combo platters, especially central Mexico specialties like huaraches and tlacoyos, register as sturdy tributes to the nourishing and delicious properties of softly griddled corn masa. The huaraches are roughly oblong, sandal-shaped corn patties, smeared with creamy refried beans, then dappled with big, vivid hunks of your chosen meat — the options include carne asada, chorizo, chicken, adobada, and al pastor. The latter, al pastor, is presented with caramelized hunks of pineapple. The meat is nicely sweet-tangy, but it’s the blistery, smoked-corn flavor of the huarache itself that makes the dish most memorable.
Chile rellenos are fluffy and vaguely eggy, pleasantly soaking in a thin tomato sauce. But if there’s an essential dish at the IHOF, it may well be the tacos dorados, chubby, cigar-shaped rolled tacos, beautifully deep-fried, and packed with spongey, well-seasoned shredded chicken. The tacos are paired with the kitchen’s signature green tomatillo sauce, which is tangy and dribbly, and whose naturally assertive flavors play well with the chicken and deep-fried corn on the plate.
The Chinese side of the menu makes a certain kind of sense if you grew up eating in a Mexican-American neighborhood, where the affection and appetite for Chinese food, especially in the American-style vein, runs deep. At the IHOF, you won’t have to choose between Mexican or Chinese — you can have your tacos with a side of spring rolls, and vice-versa.
Kung pao chicken is not bad, the slightly grizzled hunks of chicken lightly spicy and flavor-rich. A plate of dandan noodles offers a toned-down version of the Sichuan classic, complete with nicely seasoned minced chicken, but slightly mushy noodles on a recent visit made it hard to slurp with full abandon. A better option might be the popular orange chicken, the soft, fleshy bundles of meat thickly-glazed with a garlicky, gingery orange space. It’s Chinese food in the fast-food or P.F. Chang’s vein, powered by sodium and gooey sauces, and designed to scratch a specific itch.
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It may not be a culinary field trip around the world, but eating at the IHOF is nearly always comfortable and pleasant, and it’s pretty hard to resist a place like that.
International House of Food
902 West Van Buren Street
Hours: Monday through Wednesday 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday
Migas with chorizo $7.99
International Club $7.49
Tacos dorados $7.99
Orange chicken $8.99