My Mini Taste of Phoenix: Seeking Sweets and Asian Comfort Food in the Valley
(Clockwise from top left): Pho from Unphogettable, side dishes at Chodang, caramel and vanilla frozen yogurt topped with fruit from Yogurtland, seafood tofu soup and fried dumplings from Chodang, baklava from Haji-Baba.
Hi, I'm Mabel. You might recognize the byline from my series The Baker's Lab. I'm from the Midwest and spent a couple months at New Times getting to know Phoenix this summer -- best time of the year possible, right? That's what every single person I meet locally keeps telling me anyway. Luckily though, I have family out here. We're distant, both geographically and personally, but as soon as I learned they love food as much as I do, I knew we'd get along just fine. Read on to see where and what we ate together.
My Uncle Sonny says he's eaten at more than 300 food establishments in the Valley. For me, living in downtown Phoenix in the dead of summer pretty much just included meals from the mini fridge and indulging in Subway, available within walking distance. So, 300 is a big number to digest.
"Sweet! I appreciate good food, too," he said in response to my suggestion that we get together for lunch. "Let me know what day is good for you so we can plan a mini Taste of Phoenix."
Uncle Sonny and Aunt Winnie, both medical professionals of Chinese descent who spent their formative years in the northern United States and Canada, respectively, greet me with big smiles as they pick me up on a sunny Sunday morning. They've been living in Phoenix for seven years.
Uncle Sonny's special restaurants guide was a pleasant surprise.
As soon as I step foot into the car, he hands me a neatly typed pocket-size list labeled "Places to eat in PHX." It includes about 20 or so recommended favorites, including a couple of worthwhile chains, along with addresses, cost range labeled by dollar sign, and a handy column of "What's so good or special about this place?" Very official! Most impressive.
The list primarily includes Asian eateries like TeHaru Sushi and Sekong by Night, but it also has a couple of bakeries and outlying items like Persian Room Fine Wine and Kebab, Pizzeria Bianco, Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana and the Asian/Italian Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe.
Their tastes are pretty much spot on with my own -- I love all kinds of food but am easily pleased by Asian comfort food at any given time. We're all also firm believers in the fact that there's always room for dessert.
I grew up eating my mom's cooking, which consists of delicious Vietnamese and Chinese dishes from the countries where she grew up. As a temporary Phoenician transplant, I began to grow homesick for our semi-regular brunches together of Chinese dim sum and, most of all, her home-cooked pho. It's my ultimate comfort meal on par with her wontons and bun thang -- vermicelli soup with chicken, egg and pork. What can I say? I love me some noodle soup. Luckily, her younger brother Sonny has me covered on the Asian food front.
We set out to tackle as many places in a general area as our appetites can stomach in a day. On the way over, we chat about Winnie's sweet tooth and their affinity for two items on the list: Tammie Coe's giant apple oatmeal cookies as well as macarons and fast-selling croissants from Essence (all of which I later grew to love, except for the croissants which sold out before I could get to them, too).
Our first destination? Mekong Plaza -- a mecca of Southeast Asian goods and food. At Unphogettable, Winnie and I opt to share a bowl of pho chin (with tender well done brisket). The familiar warmly spiced beef broth, slinky vermicelli noodles and crunchy bean sprouts spiked with a shot of Sriracha draws me in immediately.
Though it's not quite as good as mom's (nothing ever is), it still hits the spot. I could scarf down a whole bowl on my own but know that it's wiser to save room for the rest of Uncle Son's eating expedition.
Egg custard tarts from Mekong Palace and bánh bèo from Hue Gourmet.
Following that, we wander over to Mekong Plaza's food court for cute little dishes of Vietnamese bánh bèo -- steamed, jiggly rice cakes sprinkled with scallions and seafood flake, served with light fish sauce -- and some fresh and flaky Chinese egg custard tarts that melt in the mouth.
The pair say the best rendition of this dessert they've ever had was a Portuguese version at a KFC in Hong Kong. Throughout the course of the day, I learn that they've traveled to something like twenty different countries together, sampling all sorts of interesting eats in each.
They've had Beduoin tea in a cave in Petra, guinea pig in Cusco, giant king crab in Vancouver, fish straight from the river in Istanbul, fresh gnocchi in Italy, and hasma, the dried fatty tissue found near the fallopian tubes of frogs, as a drink supplement in Hong Kong. Man, my family's cool.
Following dessert, we get even more dessert (fine by me!) in the form of walnut baklava from Haji-Baba to go with a bit of frozen yogurt from Yogurtland to cool off. Winnie's tip, which I have since dutifully used: Always try to end a meal with fresh fruit to lighten the load.
Lee's Sandwiches' combination sandwich.
Next stop: Lee's Sandwiches, the world's largest bánh mì chain, for its epitomic Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and Lee's Combination complete with sliced jambon, head cheese, liver pâté, pickled carrots and daikon, raw hot pepper slices, and cilantro.
I'm not sure what it is about this place, but my family has always loved it. We don't have Lee's in the Midwest, so every time someone goes on vacation, I get a sandwich on signature french bread as a strange but tasty souvenir.
The sandwich comes out standard, tasting the same way it always has with just a slight chew to the soft yet crusty bread. The coffee's refreshing, strong and sweet -- just like the kind I remember my dad making at home every day with his little french press -- and we drink it slowly over casual conversation about family history and culture, taking a much needed break.
After a car ride involving trivia about cacti (did you know that it take at least 50 years for a saguaro to grow an arm? I didn't.) and a stroll through Chandler Fashion Center to burn off some calories, it's time for dinner.
The two choices in mind are China Magic Noodle House and Chodang in Chandler. We decide on the latter for a slight change in pace, and share a smorgasbord of Korean dishes including seafood tofu soup, Bibimbap, fried dumplings and provided side dishes of dried seaweed strips, spicy daikon, creamy apple salad, and kimchi.
It's a colorful meal that's sublimely savory, wholesome, and sometimes spicy, lending the perfect end to a delicious day. Thanks to Uncle Sonny, I've tasted a bit of Phoenix. And even though I might have to waddle back home, I'm hungry for more.
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