Summer travel season has arrived.
It seems everyone's starting to leave town, talk about their vacation plans, or post quirky Facebook updates from far-off places. Me? I'm looking forward to an overdue jaunt to New York City, but it can't come soon enough. And in the meantime, a good friend of mine is there as we speak, taking in all the sights and sounds, shopping like a pro, celeb-spotting, and eating well.
All of this is making me antsy. And very, very hungry.
Great Wall Hong Kong Cuisine
Great Wall Hong Kong Cuisine
3446 West Camelback Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to midnight, Saturday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday (dim sum served daily until 2 p.m.)
My favorite memories of a place are always wrapped up in eating experiences — the flavors that dazzle you when you discover a new restaurant or seek out an old favorite, the aromas wafting through the air when you stroll through a certain neighborhood. On the subject of New York, for me, that neighborhood is Chinatown, in all of its ginger-steamed, stir-fried, soy-sauced glory.
But I've gotten these nostalgia-induced cravings plenty of times before, and I've learned that the only way to soothe the stomach rumbling (and the wanderlust, at least temporarily) is to indulge a good meal that tastes like another coast, or better yet, another country. This time, as much as I wanted to make a beeline for Sky Harbor, I headed to Great Wall Hong Kong Cuisine, a fantastic dim sum spot that's a short drive from downtown if you hop on the I-17.
Great Wall is located in what you might call the Phoenix equivalent of a Chinatown dive, a shabby strip mall at the northeast corner of 35th Avenue and Camelback — except there aren't any other Chinese businesses gathered nearby, just a big dollar store next door and a KFC out front.
That's okay. I'd probably be suspicious if it were anywhere too flashy. There's something wonderful about walking into a place like this, which looks so unassuming from the street but is full of color and energy when you walk through the doors. It's like opening a present. The only catch is that it's hard to get a sense of time, since there are no windows. On one recent visit, the same Norah Jones song, playing on an endless loop, made it kind of surreal.
Great Wall's ballroom-size dining area is spacious, a sea of big round dining tables decked out in pale peach tablecloths. Butterscotch-colored chairs match brightly painted columns along the walls, each one seemingly exploding with faux flowers. Red paper lanterns and Chinese New Year tinsel garlands sway from the ceiling as live fish, enormous red lobsters, and geoduck clams silently bob in burbling glass tanks. At one end of the room, a large red-and-gold sign is emblazoned with the character fu (which means happiness or good fortune), flanked by a phoenix and a dragon — it's luck times three.
There's actually a sprawling menu of à la carte dishes — with plenty of fresh seafood, as you'd expect from the looks of the aquarium — but dim sum is the reason to come at lunch and on weekends. Expect to be surrounded by Chinese people of all ages, from packs of sassy teens to elderly folks sipping endless cups of jasmine tea.
Ladies pushing the dim sum carts, stacked with metal steaming containers and rows of plates, pass by frequently, invariably bringing something new and irresistible that they didn't have the last go-round. On my visits to Great Wall, just when I thought I'd settled on a gluttonous number of dishes, I'd succumb to something too pretty to pass up, like flaky, golden pastries packed with mild curried beef, or a platter laden with roast duck, its shiny, crispy skin a deep shade of pomegranate.
Cha siu bao, ubiquitous dim sum standards, were nevertheless a delight to eat, each fluffy white steamed dumpling giving way to a moist heart of barbecued pork. Har gau hit the spot, thanks to firm, fresh shrimp in each delicately pleated pouch, while another variation, also wrapped in translucent steamed flour skins, contained a mix of shrimp, scallops, pork, and scallions. And neatly wrapped lotus leaf squares unfurled in a mouthwatering cloud of savory steam, revealing flavorful sticky rice studded with chicken and mushrooms. I couldn't stop eating that rice even after it became masochistic to take another bite.
Chicken feet were one of the real highlights — impressively tender and coated in a fiery but slightly sweet chile sauce, enhanced by the faintest touch of Chinese five-spice. Too bad more dim sum restaurants don't serve them like this. My lips tingle at the thought of how deliciously spicy they were.
Bean-filled sesame buns and silky cheong fun (flat sheets of rice noodle rolled around shrimp, pork or minced beef, drizzled with salty-sweet soy) tasted as good as any I've had in Chinatown. Pork siu mai were also comparable to what I've eaten elsewhere; except here, they were not served hot — which was unfortunate. I can appreciate a pork-filled crispy taro dumpling that's not piping hot, but I prefer my steamed siu mai straight out of the cooker. As for the black bean spare ribs, they were meatier than most, though quite oily.
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At dim sum restaurants, dessert isn't always obvious — there could be pork-filled buns displayed right alongside the sweets, and if you don't double-check with the waitress, you'll get an unexpected bite of something savory. Tiny egg custard tarts were lightly sweet and tasted good with tea, but I also loved the custard buns — moist and bready, with sweet vanilla custard inside and a crumbly outer layer that was almost like shortbread.
But, hey, order both if you're that hungry. At Great Wall, you can fill up on a whole lot of good food for perhaps ten bucks a head, making this one of the better places in Phoenix to feast on a shoestring budget.
And if that's not good fortune, I don't know what is.