Chinese New Year doesn't officially happen for another month, on February 14.
But with a fresh new 2010 calendar at my desk and an out-of-the-blue craving for dim sum, I had the upcoming Year of the Tiger on my mind and figured I'd round up some friends for a feast at Phoenix Palace in Chandler.
Dim sum isn't special holiday food — it's basically the Chinese take on brunch, served up as sharable plates that you choose from food carts passing by — but eating it always feels like an occasion, because it's ideal to go with a group and sample as many goodies as possible.
2075 North Dobson Road, Chandler
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Dim sum: $2.25 to $6.25 per item
The popularity of different dim sum restaurants can shift almost as quickly as the direction of the wind, as picky customers will soon head elsewhere if they don't get quality, variety, prompt service, and cheap prices. It's a lot to ask from anyone, but the best places pull it off with finesse.
That's why Phoenix Palace is predictably mobbed, especially on weekends. Located in the same Chandler plaza as Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket, the restaurant serves a full menu of both Mandarin and Cantonese cuisine, but it's dim sum that brings me back again and again. And looking around the room, I have a lot of company.
Large, round banquet tables for 10 take up a big part of the expansive dining space, and they always seem full, thanks to Asian families who show up with three or even four generations in tow. With a colorful "good fortune" wall hanging as a backdrop, it's a sea of eager faces, busy chopsticks, and whirling lazy Susans bearing a smorgasbord of dumplings, meats, buns, and cakes.
Phoenix Palace has quite the gung-ho waitstaff, who steadily brings out cart after cart of food, each round just as tempting as the last. One server was so enthusiastic that he insisted we try the steamed dumplings he'd just brought out, calling them the best thing in the house as we groaned about how full we were. Then, we all got a laugh when my friend's mom called him out, reminding him that he'd said the same thing about the plate of fried dough still sitting on the table.
Not that he was lying about how good the dough was, though — at least when it was hot out of the fryer. We happily dipped hunks of it into bowls of creamy congee (rice porridge), flavored with bits of pork and scallion. We marveled over the ethereal crispiness of taro "bird's nests," fried starchy halos stuffed with a savory pork and mushroom mixture. We wrinkled our noses at green bell pepper (is it the world's most hated vegetable?) but admitted it was pretty tasty topped with chicken and shrimp paste, with salty soy dip on the side.
I would call the whole Phoenix Palace dining experience giddy, except that the pace is so leisurely. You get the instant gratification of eating what shows up in front of you — and, indeed, they'll try to start feeding you even before your whole party is seated — but it's not about inhaling a couple dishes and calling it a day.
Rather, it's about nibbling your way through waves of food, washing it down with a bottomless pot of jasmine tea. Somehow, there's always room for more, and you don't realize how much you've indulged until you finally attempt to stand up, blissfully heading home for a nap. Man, the Chinese know how to live.
The sheer variety of dishes here is impressive. A few of my favorites include lightly browned dumplings packed with scallions and shrimp; fried dough wrapped in a succulent layer of rice noodle, with sesame seeds on top and tangy black bean dipping sauce; and translucent pork, peanut, and carrot dumplings fragrant with scallion and star anise. I also have a weakness for a simple plate of steamed gai lan (Chinese broccoli), its glossy green stalks drizzled with oyster sauce.
Dim sum standards like har gow (steamed shrimp dumpling) and chicken feet were excellent, with plump shrimp tucked into the former, and the latter doused in a lipsmacking red chile-black bean sauce. Spare ribs were meatier than what I've had elsewhere, and tripe was mercifully tender, steeped in warm ginger broth.
In between bites of meaty stuff, my dining companions raved about the steamed brown sugar cake, a huge, fluffy creation that a waitress snipped into thick slices with a pair of scissors. It was just sweet enough, as much about the light, moist texture as the delicate flavor. Meanwhile, dense, pan-fried turnip cake and taro cake fit firmly into the savory category.
The barrage continued with all manner of buns — pork and shrimp buns spiked with green onion, yeasty bread rolls topped with a sweet egg yolk crust, and awesome glazed char siu bao, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork and crispy on the bottom.
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Buns qualified as dessert, too. Of course, there were trays of traditional egg custard tarts, but most of the confections were round, three-bite-sized buns, either sugar-glazed and stuffed with sweet coconut filling, or bursting with red bean paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
And then there were snow mountain buns, my absolute favorite thing of all. Served warm, these soft, custard-filled pastries were melt-in-your-mouth sublime. If you squint your eyes, they actually sort of look like tiny snow-capped peaks — but who has time for that? I'd rather get down to business and sink my teeth into one.
Next time the waiter comes around to tell us what's the best dish in the house, I might have to argue with him.