Chef Johnny Chu has been a diehard supporter of downtown Phoenix for many years, first bringing a sense of international cool to Roosevelt Row with his popular pan-Asian restaurant Fate (which now houses Bliss), and later introducing Asian tapas to the area with Sens, a chic sake bar. He's also venturing into the Scottsdale nightlife district as executive chef of a soon-to-open Asian tapas lounge, The Mint.
The man is an idea machine, and his concepts cater to urban sensibilities with intriguing flavors and atmosphere that could fool you into thinking you were in some L.A. hipster enclave, or maybe even in Hong Kong.
So why, then, did he open his latest concept in what feels like the boonies, a plain ol' strip mall in Chandler? The restaurant is called Tien Wong, but the sign simply says, "Hot Pot."
Michele Laudig cafe
2330 North Alma School Road
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight daily
Udon noodle: $3
Sliced black pork: $4
Shabu shabu beef: $5
As it turns out, this location on Alma School (which used to house Citrus Cafe) is just a stone's throw away from Chandler's epicenter of Asian culture, the intersection of Warner and Dobson Roads, where you can eat your way around the Pacific Rim, enjoying anything from Vietnamese banh mi to Japanese sashimi at a variety of restaurants near the enormous Lee Lee Oriental Grocery Store.
Somehow, though, there wasn't a dedicated hot pot restaurant in the vicinity (or, frankly, in the Valley) until Chu opened Tien Wong two months ago.
He saw an opportunity, bolstered by affordable rent and a built-in Asian customer base, and created a chic space filled with colorful silk lanterns and tables with built-in heating units. Modern white chairs pop against a dark paneled wall lined with shiny oval mirrors. And the soundtrack is cool — upbeat electronic and indie rock that might come as a bit of a surprise for this area, but not if you're familiar with Chu's other restaurant, Sens.
Yeah, it's a cliché to point out that Asian cultures emphasize the harmony of the group over the desires of the individual, but let's face it: Those Confucian values also equal a dining experience that's damn fun with friends and family. What makes it so exciting to sit around a lazy Susan piled with plates of dim sum, or to sizzle up some Korean barbecue? Sharing.
That's the idea behind hot pot, too. You gather around a pot of bubbling, steaming broth and add goodies as you like, cooking and nibbling and chatting the night away. (Beer goes beautifully with this, and if Tien Wong had a liquor license, I'm sure people would camp out a lot longer here, but at the moment, your drink options are tea, soda, fruit juice, or sugar cane juice.)
A slice of beef is done in a matter of seconds after a few dunks in the boiling soup; in Japan, they call this kind of cuisine shabu shabu, which evokes a swishing sound.
The Tien Wong menu resembles that of a sushi bar, with a long list of à la carte ingredients that you check off with a pencil — fresh meat and seafood, several types of noodles, an array of tofu, plenty of greens, and an exotic selection of Asian mushrooms. You also get a choice of broth. Whether you're a meat-lover, a fan of spicy (or not-at-all-spicy) food, a vegan, or a gluten-averse diner, you can customize.
Yin-Yang is a good option for first-timers. It's two kinds of broth in a special pot split right down the middle, so you can sample both the Hong Kong-style house herbal broth (made with pork stock) and the Taiwanese-style spicy broth, which gets more and more spicy as the broth reduces and a handful of red chiles release their potent heat. (Cheerful servers periodically stop by to replenish the pot with a pitcher of fresh broth.)
The daikon-tinged miso has a Japanese appeal, while the curry version tastes Thai, and has an incredibly mouthwatering aroma. Spicy lemongrass has a kick but is deliciously balanced.
Among the cuts of meat, I preferred the succulent, marbled shabu shabu beef to the leaner rib eye, while unctuous wagyu beef and delicate, pale strips of "black pork" (named after the color of the pig, not its flesh, and also called kurobuta) simply melted on my tongue after a couple quick dips into the pot. Lamb had a robust taste that I preferred with sesame dipping sauce over scallion-flecked soy (both were great). And don't miss the beef tongue, which isn't as intimidating as you'd think. Sliced paper-thin, it cooks up perfectly tender and is the most flavorful cut here — so much so that it doesn't need either of the dipping sauces.
Pristine seafood took a bit more time to cook, but not much. You can tell the plump whole shrimp are done when they're pink and firm, while translucent slices of halibut simply turn opaque. Green lip mussels, on special one night, were nice, meaty specimens. Meanwhile, the lobster puffs (balls of lobster paste) had a smooth, firm texture and a lightly sweet taste.
I loved the different tofu options, each one a different consistency. But the special housemade "iced tofu" was by far the highlight, its delicate layers created by freezing and then thawing the bean curd. Plucked from the soup, it held in a lot of broth and gave a juicy sensation as I bit into it.
Noodles were another great add-in, from thick, silky udon to toothsome glass noodles to chewy flat rice noodles, which weren't strips of dough but actually oblong discs. King mushrooms were firm but silky, while tiny enoki added springy interest to a tangle of tender cooked greens (baby bok choy might be familiar, but try something different, like bitter gai choy, peppery tong-o, or sweet, bright pea tips).
I highly recommend the quail eggs, which are a little tricky to open but worth the effort (the shell is brittle, but the inner membrane is thicker, so you have to pick and then peel a hole in one end). Although you could hard-boil them, I liked mine poached, their oozy yolks adding richness to my own individual bowl of soup.
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Korean pumpkin takes longest to cook, but once it softens, it adds a gentle sweetness to the mélange. On the flipside, handmade, adorably bite-size pork and veggie dumplings cook up rather quickly and deliver instant gratification with creamy, flavorful filling. Don't miss them if they're a nightly special.
If you crave a sweet, cool finish, try creamy green tea cheesecake — or, if you've gone overboard, expect a gratis glass of sugar cane juice at the end of the meal.
Chu says he opened Tien Wong in Chandler as a way of testing out the hot pot concept, and that he'll open a second one in Central Phoenix if it's a success. So far, so good — I know I'm not the only Asia-phile making the trek. If there's anyone who can introduce CenPho to the joys of communal, cook-it-yourself dining, it's Chu.