In the last decade, American restaurant menus have been under siege. Mozzarella sticks have held off the invading queso and tortilla chips. Chili fries have been trampled by Southwest egg rolls. And lettuce wraps -- once an exotic foreign visitor -- are now a staple of Chili's, Applebee's and other American chains.
For this week's Battle of the Dishes, we pitted a now traditional appetizer against its unique cousin. Read on to find out whether one AmerAsian joint's sweet BBQ wraps held their own against the colorful dried fruit-studded version at a downtown Mediterranean lounge.
In One Corner: Ling & Louie's Asian Bar & Grill
5040 Wild Horse Pass Blvd. in Chandler
A clever name and 100% "Like It" ratings on Urbanspoon drew us to the Wild Horse Pass branch of hybrid American-Asian restaurant Ling & Louie's. The decor is Asian Modern; screens, lacquered wood tables, drum lights, stalks of bamboo and a red color scheme that's scientifically guaranteed to make you hungry. We breathed deep meditative breaths walking into this calming oasis (then again, maybe it was just sighs of relief after passing through the cloud of stale, choking smoke in the casino).
As one Yelper pointed out, it's "more Louie than Ling." Entrees range from surf & turf and meatloaf to sweet n' sour chicken and sushi. Wait, isn't sushi Japanese? Shh, don't tell. Just read the funny story of Louie and his exchange student wife Ling that's on the menu.
For the best comparison, we settled on the standard chicken lettuce wraps rather than the ahi version. Our wraps arrived in record time, served piping hot and bathed in a deep brown hoisin-based sauce. A wedge of crisp iceberg leaves accompanied the dish.
My dining partner and I heaped a few tablespoons of the chicken mixture onto our first leaves and bit in. Diced white meat chicken bites were juicy and flavorful, imbued with sweetness from the hoisin and a briny soy undertone. Thin shreds of Thai basil gave the meat mix a peppery finish. The lettuce leaves were more than just a holder for the filling, helping to mitigate the intense flavors so that the sweet BBQ sauce didn't become overwhelming.
"It's amazing how sweet the water chestnuts are," voiced my companion between nibbles. "I usually find them very bitter." To most diners, this aquatic veggie is just filler. Water chestnuts can range from bland to very bitter depending on growth conditions and freshness. Here, they absorbed some of the sweet liquid and added a delightful crisp texture and sweet crunch to the dish.
The accompanying Asian dip wasn't necessary with such a sauce-heavy dish, but the vinegar-based condiment did balance the sweetness with a zesty acidity. Overall, a pleasant dish, even if its Chinese ancestry is questionable.
In the Other Corner: Fez
3815 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix
Word of mouth and an intriguing ingredient list brought us to Fez for a romantic weekday dinner. The menu can best be described as eclectic with a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean/Morrocan flair, but the decor is modern, hip and totally American. Super dim lighting, modern art, cozy striped banquettes and a funky "chandelier" of individual hanging light bulbs make for a trendy lounge feel. Yeah, it's exactly like every modern bar/restaurant in town, but Fez was at least doing it a few years ahead of the curve.
The place is well loved -- as evidenced by overwhelmingly positive Yelp reviews including my favorite one by Todd S. of Las Vegas who wrote, "Oh FEZ. If you had reproductive parts I would try to impregnate you." Wow. If the lettuce wraps are that good, my date might be getting some afterwards! The ingredients even sounded sensual: minced grilled chicken with dried pears, almonds, dates, cherries, pomegranate vinaigrette & romaine cups. I was smacking my lips in anticipation before they hit the table two minutes later. Hmm, that was fast.
Turns out Fez's version is served cold. Not a dealbreaker, but not what my date & I expected. The dish looked delicious. Long spears of romaine formed perfect trenches for the filling mixture, which contained a colorful selection of dried fruit chunks. My dining partner took one bite, then put the wrap down on his plate never to be looked at again. "Oh, well, can't wait for the lamb kisra!" he quipped. "I wanted to like the wraps, but it's like drinking a jug of fruity vinegar."
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Sadly, he was right. The chunks of white meat chicken were fresh and juicy. Long strips of dried cinnamon pears were sweet and delicious, a perfect snack all by themselves. Dried cherries were pleasantly tart, sweet dates were lip-smackingly good. Too bad all of this beautiful meat and fruit was drowned in heavy pomegranate vinaigrette.
It was slightly sweet and tart, but had such an overpowering sour acidic taste that you could barely detect the foods underneath. Really, you could've subbed tuna and apples in there and I would barely have noticed the difference. Fez would do better to cut waaaaay back on the dressing -- or better yet, just drizzle a little on and offer a larger cup on the side for dipping if necessary.
The Winner: I had high hopes for Fez's unique fruity lettuce cups, but heavy-handed dressing application made Ling & Louie's standard sweet Asian wraps stand out in this battle.