Grocery shopping on an empty stomach has its pitfalls, especially when you make it to the register and find out how much you've spent on random, hunger-induced impulse buys.
The experience can be even more intense at ethnic markets, where the shelves are stocked with unusual ingredients to inspire creative cooking, and exotic leafy greens you won't find at your corner Safeway. You can fill a shopping cart as quickly as your imagination can run wild. But if you're not careful, you might head home without the very thing you'd intended to buy.
It's much more sensible to go about things satiated and smiling, like a plump little Buddha serenely floating through the aisles with a sense of purpose and, who knows, maybe even a grocery list.
Michele Laudig Cafe
7575 West Cactus Road, Peoria
BBQ Triple: $13.95
Pork pot stickers: $4.50
Shrimp with seasoned salt and jalapeo:$9.95
Beef chow fun: $8.95
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Hope Kee is the perfect place to plot your shopping strategy, and frankly, it's so good that you'll likely lose track of time as you enjoy plates of Chinese barbecue and fragrant Cantonese cuisine. Situated inside the Peoria outpost of Lee Lee Oriental Grocery Store, the multi-ethnic market whose elder sibling is based in Chandler, it's partitioned off from the store, but not so much that you can't see the sign for the produce department from your table or booth.
However, it's easy to block out the bustling grocery store, once you glimpse the focal point of Hope Kee's casual dining room. You see it as soon as you walk in, a brightly lit glass case filled with all kinds of Chinese barbecue — cuts of pork, shaded dark red from their aromatic glaze, racks of ribs, and several whole roast ducks hanging in a row, their crispy skin glistening a deep chestnut color. This alone is reason to come here.
I showed up one night with some friends who've lived in Hong Kong, and who get just as giddy about good Chinese food as I do. We'd planned on picking up some groceries after dinner, but after endless pots of hot tea that fueled our compulsion to keep nibbling on a barbecue well after we were stuffed, we suddenly realized that Lee Lee was closing down for the night, and that the folks at Hope Kee were gracious enough not to kick us out. Incredibly, we still had leftovers.
Portions were generous, so even a medium-size bowl of Hong Kong-style shrimp wonton soup was enough for four people. The wontons were huge and silky, stuffed with whole tiny shrimp, and the mild broth was flecked with yellow nira (pale, delicate Chinese chives). Meanwhile, an appetizer serving of pork pot stickers had half a dozen large, pan-fried dumplings, served sizzling hot with a side of salty soy-based dip.
I recommend the dual or triple barbecue plate as a way to sample a few of the goodies from that display case — it's still quite a decent-size portion of each. Thick, moist slices of honey-glazed barbecue pork were like meat candy, with a sticky-sweet coating flavored with five-spice. I loved the glazed roast duck, too, with its salty, crispy, ethereally translucent skin that cracked as I bit into it.
Simple steamed chicken wasn't as much of a show-stopper — it was more about subtlety — but I found a jaw-droppingly good chicken dish from the entrée list: garlic crispy chicken. Oh, man, was it tasty. They took half a fried chicken, chopped it into several pieces, and arranged it on a platter with tons of crispy garlic bits and chopped scallions. The result was pure heaven, with perfect crispy skin, juicy meat, and a heady amount of garlic. The soy-based dip that came with it was entirely unnecessary.
I one-upped the chicken with an excellent shrimp dish that I'll definitely order again. Enormous, plump whole shrimp — shell, heads, tails, and all — were delicately battered and deep-fried, then stir-fried with diced jalapeño and seasoned salt. I'm sure there are plenty of people who like shrimp but won't eat the heads. All I can say is, that's more for me. They were lightly crunchy and perfectly salty, as easy to munch on as a pile of potato chips, and the meat had a sweet, fresh flavor.
A clay pot dish brimming with beef brisket, tendon, and mushrooms was another interesting pick. The slightly spicy sauce resembled gravy and tasted great soaked up in gobs of white rice. I expected to like the beefy brisket better, but the chunks of tendon had an appealingly soft texture, reminiscent of pork belly.
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For a much more straightforward beef fix, the pan-fried beef chow fun was delicious — silky, slurp-worthy flat noodles tossed with scallions, sprouts, and tender slices of beef. It was a big pile of food and easily sharable, but the day I ventured in alone to order it, I polished it off single-handedly.
Pork rib with bitter melon isn't something you see on very many Chinese menus around town, so my dining companions and I were eager to try it here. And as expected, it was a hit. Indeed, the bright green bitter melon lived up to its name — it was intense. But after a couple of bites in, it grew on us as we appreciated the yin-and-yang contrast between the bitter vegetable and the slight sweetness of the pork and lip-smacking black bean sauce.
After ordering so many rich, meaty dishes, something with vegetables sounded good. The seasonal vegetable dish happened to be stir-fried snow pea leaves — also unusual at Chinese restaurants in these parts — and it was a worthy counterpart to the other stuff we ordered. The greens were ultra-fresh and cooked until just tender enough, infused with garlic and topped with more crispy bits of garlic. I would've been content with bok choy, but I'm glad I went for the snow pea leaves instead.
Grocery list or not, Hope Kee is definitely worth the detour when you're in the mood for a taste of Hong Kong.