Chef Johnny Chu stops by our table for a visit. He was impressed by the quantity of food my party ordered, he says, and wants to see what in the world we're about. There are just two of us for this sunny weekday lunch, but we've loaded up every inch of our shiny black-and-white painted wooden table, set in an old, converted home on the edge of one of downtown Phoenix's less desirable (okay, completely crummy) neighborhoods. We're at Chu's new baby, Fate, tucked on a strange corner at Fourth Street and Roosevelt, dining in a faded living room area cleaned up with slick gray-painted wood floors, white brick walls, and a collection of offbeat but appealing consignment art hung randomly about.
We've walked through a dirt lot to get here, strewn with an impressive landfill of empty liquor bottles and curious trash. Next to the restaurant is a funky-freaky art gallery, an "office" for lease (another abandoned home), and a residence with owners seemingly adamant that Governor Janet Napolitano allow illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses, given the passionate, handwritten signs littering their yard. The only thing letting us know that this might be a place to grab a meal, in fact, is a crudely lettered sign saying, "Fate. Authentic Asian Cuisine and Art Gallery."
Desperate to try anything Chu cooks, we've loaded up our table to make up for our first trip to his new restaurant. That first time, quite late on a Saturday night, it had been with hesitation, and with already full bellies.
905 North Fourth Street
Saigon rolls: $4
Spring rolls: $4
Spinach buns: $6
Seafood bamboo soup: $6
Thai coconut curry: $9
Cantonese black dragon: $8
Spicy Saigon: $9
602-254-6424. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
That Saturday had been my girlfriend's birthday. I'd heard about Fate, which had taken over the fabled but failed Table (a farm-fresh experience with great potential, but with inexperienced owners and dishes priced much too high for the neighborhood). Yet all I'd found in looking up information about this "underground" place was an obscure description on an even more obscure Web site: "Destination Fridays at Fate, Pulsating grooves at Phoenix's newest art-house restaurant. House music every Friday." With nary a word about its cuisine, we had opted for a "safety" dinner at Durant's, that old-fashioned 53-year-old steak house down the road at Central and Thomas.
So by the time we got to Fate that late night, we'd already consumed enough to feed a small army.
I knew that Chu owns another restaurant, Lucky Dragon, in Tempe. For the last five years, the place has been as much a music club and art gallery as it is Chinese restaurant. I've never been there, figuring that in places like these, food comes in a distant second to style. Plus, Chu is only 28 -- what can a child chef possibly know? We weren't filled with high hopes for Fate, either, especially when we were greeted by a pack of teens and 20-somethings racing to get in on the hugely loud rap fest being conducted in Fate's backyard.
Silly, stupid us, being such scaredy-cats. It took mere minutes for us to figure out that there are few more exciting restaurants in our Valley. The setting, while certainly inner city, is clever, charmingly bohemian and clean. Fate serves until midnight on weekdays, and, hallelujah for us night owls, until 3 a.m. on weekends. The prices are cheap (everything is 10 bucks and under, unless we add a truckload of primo shrimp, which knocks the cost up a meager three bucks). The service is entirely engaging (after just two visits, we know where Chu lives, how much he pays in rent for his home, we've toured his impossibly tiny kitchen and have met his girlfriend). The food is, in a word, breathtaking -- Asian fare that's largely vegetarian, absolutely fresh, and all handcrafted from completely natural ingredients.
That first night, we found ourselves noshing our way through an appetizer platter custom-crafted for us by Chu after we explained our we're-full-but-have-to-try-this-wonderful-sounding-stuff dilemma to our waitress.
The platter contained the usual items: Saigon egg rolls, Thai spring rolls, pot stickers and crab puffs. But these weren't just any production-line appetizers, served on a cunning bamboo rod tray layered prettily with crisp leaf lettuce. The Saigon rolls were miniature, about the size of a lady's thumb, vegetarian with a tasty mince of moist vegetables, all wrapped in rice paper and deep-fried until gorgeously greasy crispy. We dipped them in what's perhaps the best sauce I've ever had in my life, a soy-shallot blend made vibrant with the addition of lots and lots of Asian chiles. The spring rolls were more like traditional Vietnamese summer rolls gone vegetarian, with opaque rice paper bundles of floss-thin noodles, romaine, carrot, mint and cilantro served cold. Their more delicate nature went well with a milder soy-shallot sauce, as did the graceful pot stickers, engagingly light, stuffed to the brim with juicy pork and grilled golden brown. Okay, so I didn't really taste any crab in my crab puffs, but I loved the creamy-crunchy won ton triangles anyway, dipped in sparkling light sweet-and-sour.
Fate doesn't serve any alcohol -- just a high-class mix of beverages like Voss bottled water, mango or coconut juice, soy milk, coffees, hot teas and sodas. So my pal skipped off to a nearby Circle K and found a pleasing Kendall Jackson Chardonnay for just $3.99 (Fate has a reasonable $5 corkage fee, no stem fees). I love this kind of stuff. What an amazing addition to the Valley's dining scene.
So now, just a few days later, my buddy and I are back, scarfing an oversize appetizer. We're sucking down a giant bowl of soup. We're digging among three full-size entrees, bowls of white rice, and two big bottles of iced tea. God, we're pigs, but we're so happy.
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Chu is one hardworking man, we find out over our lunch. He's taking a gamble on hard-core downtown, he explains, struggling to bring us a mix of food, art and music. He thinks this area of the Valley is ready for a "hip" downtown, and if this new downtown can bring more food like his vegetarian spinach bun appetizers, I'd say he's on to something. They look like flowers, fashioned of squishy white bread dough stuffed with fresh minced spinach and steamed in a moist tart tumble. They're so exquisite, dipped in soy-shallot, that my pal takes home the leftovers even after I've gutted them with my chopsticks.
He's nervous about the weekend, he admits, seeing as it's a "First Friday," meaning the monthly convergence of Art Detour aficionados who trawl downtown galleries and will descend upon his tiny, three-room cafe. It'll be a zoo, he says, requiring him to move his furniture out into the front yard to open up restaurant space, fence off his parking lot to accommodate his live music, and crank in his kitchen with even more energy than his typical 18-hour-a-day schedule already requires (he's the only chef for his place, and declines even to skip home to his Scottsdale townhouse for a daily nap since he "loses an hour in transit"). Chu is hoping that guests will buy his commissioned art, but only for the artists' benefit, since the restaurateur refuses to take a commission.
Is this man a god? I know I'm a believer, drawn in by his seafood bamboo soup, a clear, bright vegetable broth brimming with plump shrimp, crab, silky bamboo shoots, fresh spinach, carrots, bok choy and tiny nameko-style mushrooms. I let my friend finish the vegetables and meats in our entrees, while I savor the sauces straight. Many of the entrees are similar in their bodies -- blends of fresh-wokked snow peas, baby corn, onion, mushrooms, bok choy, steamed broccoli, carrots, bean sprouts and sometimes pineapple. We can add in our choice of tender chicken breast, quality beef, shrimp or terrific deep-fried tofu. But Chu, born and raised in Hong Kong, does more with sauces than many of our finest Valley chefs. Curry is finely gritty as it should be and too often is not, creamy rich, imbued with coconut and like luscious, liquid silk. Black dragon bean sauce has me licking it from my plate, it's so clear and clean and infused with real bean flavor, not cornstarch. A Spicy Saigon sauce positively knocks me out, so intense it is with sweet basil, mint, and lots of deliciously cruel chiles. There's spicy citron garlic sauce. Dark garlic sauce, made with real crushed garlic (I see the ingredients alongside Chu's handcrafted stove, an interesting creation of a gas range cooled with running water). There's spicy peanut sauce, spicy kung pao sauce (hot!) and a sweet-and-sour pineapple sauce that finally makes me understand why anyone would eat this sugary concoction on purpose.
Chu is smiling as we cart out our tanker truck of leftovers. He's memorized what we've eaten, from our first visit through our last. He's already got a menu prepared for the next time we come. And we're going to need a bigger table.