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THE ASIA CONSENT

Bamboo Garden, 9201 North 29th Avenue, Phoenix, 944-2388. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday.

A lawyer's task is to make sure justice prevails. But the quest for justice becomes a lot more satisfying after the client agrees to fork over one-third of the settlement.

An equally noble purpose drives restaurant reviewers: steering diners to meals of quality and value. But unlike the practitioners of the law, I can't extract a reader fee for providing this service. Instead, I count on tasty memories for my reward.

I'm not complaining. Especially now, when I'm in the midst of recalling uncommonly pleasant Asian meals I recently had at Bamboo Garden and China Legend. Open less than a year, Bamboo Garden is in a satellite strip location just south of Metrocenter, the kind that isn't likely to divert the zillions of cars streaming into the mall parking lot just ahead. And even if you do turn off and poke your head in, the warehouse-size room seems like an unpromising place to fill up. There's not much decorative charm, except for a big-screen television hooked into high-decibel stereo speakers broadcasting prime-time drivel. It overpowers the serene effects of a couple of Thai wall paintings. But when I saw the table set with intricately folded, green linen napkins in the shape of a three-sailed ship, with the fork sticking out the bottom like a rudder, I took heart. After all, if someone's going to all that trouble to fold napkins, I figured, maybe someone's also paying the same kind of attention to the food. Someone is. Bamboo Garden serves up excellent, fresh-tasting Thai fare. And check out this tempting weekend feature: Laotian specialties, dishes you can't find elsewhere in the Valley. The restaurant's Thai meals get off to a fast start when you order soup. No ethnic broth, not even chicken soup, toward which I'm genetically predisposed, packs the power and flavor of Thai models. And Bamboo Garden's hot pots are wonderful, perfect for chilly Valley winter evenings. Po tek is essentially a fish soup, packed with shrimp, mussels, fish and squid, all divinely seasoned with distinctive Thai ingredients--lemon grass, galangal (ginger), lime leaf, coriander and chile paste. It sets off a robust flavor explosion. Tom kha kai, a chicken-based soup, is in the same class. The key here is coconut milk, which imparts a velvety richness and mildness to the broth. I generally have nothing to do with Thai appetizers--they're not remotely as interesting as the main dishes. Egg rolls, Thai toast and fried won tons waste precious belly room. But I'd make an exception for Bamboo Garden's barbecued half-chicken, hacked into four meaty pieces. Peppery, garlicky and juicy, it's good to the bone. I'm impressed by the entrees here: portion size, price and taste. The kitchen is adept at blending textures and flavors--sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter--key elements of Thai cuisine. Take the pad Thai, the national noodle dish. The version here is as good as I've run across lately. Stir-fried rice noodles are thrown together with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg, green onions, ground peanuts and chiles, all scented with that ubiquitous Thai fish sauce, nam pla, made from fermented anchovies. The soft noodles, crunchy sprouts and three-dimensional blend of flavors make this a dish to savor. Garlic shrimp is also right on target. Eight medium-size specimens come pan-fried in belligerent amounts of garlic and black pepper. A side of crunchy cabbage provides the right foil for the tender shrimp. If you're looking for hot, fasten your seat belts for the keng ped. Borrowed from India but distinctively Thai, it's a red curry dish that can leave you gasping, if that's how you instruct the kitchen. Look for pork, lots of bamboo shoots and a few crunchy green beans smoothed over with sharp, smooth, chile-packed curry.

Pad krapao furnishes a refreshing antidote to the Thai curry. It's chicken soothed with fresh mint and basil, and it should staunch the flow of smoke coming out of your ears. So will the innocuous Thai-style fried rice, a dish best-suited to hesitant first-timers.

Five Laotian dishes gild the menu on weekends, and three of them form a mealtime unit. The first is One Sun Beef, strips of beef set in a sweet-spicy marinade, then dried and deep-fried. At first glance, it may remind you of beef jerky, but there's no confusing this surprisingly tender beef with rubbery domestic models. The meat is designed to be eaten with sticky, crusty rice. A woman came out of the kitchen to show us how they do it in Southeast Asia: Grab a strip of meat with your hand, then plunge it into the rice. Roll up the rice and meat into a ball in your fist, then pop it in your mouth. The third element is papaya salad. But anyone expecting sweet, juicy chunks of fruit atop greenery is in for a surprise. Instead, you get tart green papaya strips dispersed among shredded carrot and cabbage, all dressed with lots of garlic and chile pepper. It's different, and, depending on your adventure level, fun.  

There's only one dessert here. But the homemade coconut ice cream, topped with ground nuts, is first-rate, a good way to end a mouth-tingling meal. Bamboo Garden certainly isn't high on atmosphere and charm. Its proximity to Metrocenter Traffic Hell is another black mark against it. And there are plenty of other good Thai restaurants in town. But, bottom line, the food here is simply too good not to revisit. China Legend, 10155 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 451-8082. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Sure, once in a while it's exciting to go to a fancy restaurant, to celebrate a special occasion. But it's more important to have a reliable neighborhood spot, a place where you can count on getting good eats at a reasonable price when both your refrigerator and belly are empty. And if you're like me, the most important neighborhood spot is the Chinese one, because Chinese food lovers know that even mediocre Chinese food is apt to be pretty good. Folks in north Scottsdale are going to be pleased with China Legend.

It's a bit too pretty for my neck of the woods, but perfectly attuned to Scottsdale decor sensibilities. Look for rose tablecloths, silk flowers on the table and restful pictures of Chinese domestic scenes on the wall. You'll also find the table set with forks and spoons, which should clue you in to the kind of fare you'll encounter. The proprietors know their customers aren't here to sample exotic Chinese delicacies. They've come for traditional Chinese-restaurant-menu staples, and they won't be needing chopsticks to eat them. But don't be misled by the un-Chinatown setting or cutlery. And don't scoff at the bowl of crisp Chinese noodles served with duck sauce and mustard, a sure sign of gringo Chinese food to come. Though the dishes may not be cutting-edge, they are uncommonly well-crafted. Except for soups, which are by far the weakest part of the meal. Hot and sour had no vinegary punch, won ton tasted institutional and egg drop with chicken and corn was unmemorable. If you want to work your way into dinner, you're better off grazing on plump steamed Chinese dumplings, doughy and stuffed with meat. The real winners here can be found in the "Chef's Specialties" section of the menu. While many of the chef's specialties are starred to indicate they're hot and spicy, don't worry--they're not. Orange beef is often a horror, tough pieces of deep-fried, gristly meat coated with a sickly sweet orange sauce. Not here. China Legend's model is wonderful, fresh and tender with a tart, citrusy smack. Even my wife, who has an almost Hindulike aversion to beef, couldn't keep her utensils out of this platter.

General Tso chicken is another fine way to get your daily recommended allowance of battered and fried animal protein. You get a very ample portion of poultry in a rich, hoisin-accented sauce flecked with scallions. The golden scallops and shrimp topped the taste list. The dish is an exceedingly generous helping of big, juicy scallops and firm shrimp, very delicately battered and bathed in a first-rate sweet-and-sour sauce. One measure of how much I like a dish is how hungry I get when I write about it. Right now, I'm ready to take a bite out of my keyboard. Not everything comes battered and fried. The seafood fire pot, the only specialty that costs more than ten bucks, features lots of rock shrimp, scallops, cabbage, broccoli and zucchini. It's a good choice for folks who want Chinese seafood but who don't want to look at, say, a whole fish staring back at them. The off-the-menu Singapore curry noodle (it's listed on a table promo card) drew raves. First, everyone appreciated the generous amounts of shrimp and roast pork that lay hidden in the mound of thin rice noodles. Second, its mild curry bite was strong enough to tickle the taste buds without overpowering them. But if even this sounds too strong for you, consider the house lo mein, a less assertive blend of pork, chicken and shrimp with soft noodles. A one-time dip into the regular menu showed us the wisdom of sticking to the chef's specialties. Twice-cooked pork proved downright dull, harboring processed-looking strips of roast pork in a lackluster sauce.  

If you're anywhere near the northeast Valley, China Legend looks like a promising cure for the let's-eat-out, what-do-you-want-to-eat blues.


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