The Ho Chi Menu Trail
Dong A, 4808 North 35th Avenue, Phoenix, 602-841-4152. Hours: Lunch, Monday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
How much of an adventurer are you? Do you buy stocks on margin, wash your car even though rain is forecast and get tickets to a play before the reviews come out?
Or do you prefer to play it safe? Do you travel on guided tours, program all your car radio buttons to oldies stations and lay up in front of water hazards instead of shooting for the green?
Then choose the Asian restaurant that suits your personality. It's not a bungee-jumping sort of rush, but the anything-goes crowd may get a small shiver of momentary excitement pulling into Dong A. That's because it's the only restaurant in town I'm aware of that has Cambodian dishes on the menu. More fretful types, meanwhile, will find the comfort and security they crave eating familiar Chinese fare at Super Dragon.
The strip of 35th Avenue between Indian School and Camelback roads is crowded with Southeast Asian businesses and restaurants. Nothing about Dong A makes it stand out, at least from the outside. Set in a somewhat forlorn shopping strip, it doesn't look much more appealing once you walk in the front door, either.
It's done up in typical, low-budget, ethnic-restaurant style: utilitarian chairs, a scuffed-up floor, fake greenery and tables set with lazy Susans spinning paper-napkin dispensers, Asian condiments and jars of chopsticks. The inevitable television is perched above the counter. Naturally, there's a parking-lot view.
What gives the place life, however, are the friendly, eager-to-please mom-and-pop proprietors, ethnic Chinese from Cambodia who migrated to the Valley via, of all places, Nebraska. That's what accounts for the street sign announcing "Cornhusker Drive" at the back of the room, and the miniature Cornhusker football helmet on top of the television. Only in America.
The four Cambodian dishes don't get their own menu section. But the owners identified them for us: Number 51, Number 52, Number 54, Number 55. The numerals are much easier to pronounce than the names.
Three of the four are beef dishes, and they're far and away the best things here. Number 55 is bo tai chanh, a cold beef salad that resembles Thai larb. It's a tasty way to start off the meal: tender, lightly cooked strips of beef zestily doused with lemon juice and sprinkled with peanuts. "Good with beer," says the proprietor. He's got that right.
Bao xao xa ot, Number 54, also sports some Thai touches. This time, they're in the form of lemongrass and hot pepper, which provide a fragrant kick to stir-fried beef.
My favorite dish here, however, is Number 52, and the proprietor reports that it's the most popular one, as well. This platter of stir-fried beef benefits from a terrific, Chinese-style black bean sauce that will tempt you to lick your plate.
The fourth Cambodian entree isn't nearly as impressive. In the first place, the tangy shrimp with cucumber isn't particularly tangy. In the second place, the cucumber-to-shrimp ratio is out of whack. I don't eat this much cucumber in a year. Finally, if you're like me, you won't remember a single distinctive element about the bland sauce even 10 seconds after tasting it.
Except for a few fried rice dishes, the rest of the menu features Vietnamese fare. Most of it is pretty good, and all of it is astonishingly cheap.
Start with spring rolls, thin, rice-paper wraps enfolding noodles, greenery, lemon and bits of either pork or shrimp. Dip them in nuoc mam, the ubiquitous Vietnamese fermented fish sauce that comes with just about every dish.
It's certainly a major component of bun, yummy cold noodle salads that also get the meal energetically under way. We got the bun put together with pork, lettuce and crispy, mini-egg rolls, over which the proprietor poured a bowl of nuoc mam. I'd call the taste oddly refreshing.
Dense, marble-size pork meatballs, served over rice, don't taste much like what you'd expect meatballs to taste like. But their offbeat seasoning will hold your interest until they're all gone.
When the kitchen gets the sauces right, Dong A shines. That's how it is with the chicken in garlic sauce, full of zip, heat and flavor. It's true, too, of Number 27, stir-fried shrimp in an exotic dark sauce. But Number 33, the duo of roasted pork and grilled shrimp, is done in by a dull brown sauce that's strictly one-dimensional.
Two other dishes don't sound or look very impressive, but they're effective, nonetheless. Egg noodles tossed with a tiny bit of shrimp, beef, pork, chicken and veggies (Number 15) are stodgy. Still, the flavors come through clean and light. And the hefty portion of Special Fried Rice, like almost everything here, tastes remarkably fresh, as if it were made to order.
Finish up with France's best colonial legacy to Southeast Asia -- strong coffee, filtered at the table and poured over sweetened condensed milk.
Apart from the food, Dong A has one more thing working for it: price. Almost every dish is cheaper than a movie ticket. At Dong A, even Westerners should find it easy to get Oriented.
Super Dragon, 1212 East Northern, Phoenix, 602-997-1685. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.
I had great hopes for Super Dragon, a new Chinese restaurant that recently took over the spot formerly occupied by Big Wong II. After all, I'd heard a chef from Great Wall, a topnotch Chinese restaurant on the west side, was running the kitchen.
But a dispiriting run through the unimaginative menu dashed my expectations. At Super Dragon, I'm compelled to report, it's Asia vu all over again.
Check out the tables, clear evidence that Super Dragon isn't aiming at homesick natives. They're set with Western cutlery, and adorned with cloth napkins and heavy tablecloths. The sparely decorated place itself doesn't exude much character, either, ethnic or otherwise.
The menu? It's the bland leading the bland. After I looked it over, I asked the proprietor why it seemed so, well, dull. She confided that the chef had scaled back and toned down the offerings to account for neighborhood tastes. "People are afraid of some dishes," she explained, pointing to XO string beans and croquette scallops and shrimp on the small "House Specialties" part of the menu. And, as if on cue, two seconds later I heard the people next to me order egg rolls, cashew chicken and sweet-and-sour pork -- with the sauce on the side!
With customers like that, it's no wonder the chef doesn't seem to get very excited about most everything here. Soups are innocuous. The hot-and-sour seafood soup barely had a pulse, while the won ton soup was even less lively. Two other starters, barbecued spare ribs and steamed dumplings, also fell flat.
A few noteworthy dishes make their way onto the menu. Chicken Lettuce Wrapped is oddly worded, but there's nothing odd about the lettuce fronds tastily heaped with diced chicken and veggies, invigorated with hoisin sauce. Walnut prawns -- crunchy honeyed nuts paired with firm shrimp in a creamy sauce -- have yin and yang working for them. Eggplant is outstanding: chunks of wonderfully flavorful Japanese eggplant in a garlic sauce that's much milder than advertised. And chow fun, a simple rice noodle dish, shows that simple doesn't have to mean bland.
Too bad the kitchen doesn't get that message often enough. A couple of chicken dishes recommended by the proprietor -- sesame chicken and Hunan chicken -- could cure insomnia. I guess these are the kind of dishes she figures Super Dragon's customers will like. Twin mushrooms and bok choy, a vegetarian recommendation, also suffers from the blahs, done in by a snoozy sauce.
Despite management's fears, there's nothing terribly threatening about the lethargic House Specialties. XO string beans promised Chinese long beans, but our lackluster dish was prepared with ordinary supermarket green beans. Sizzling black-pepper steak, chewy strips of beef tossed with green pepper and onions, is only partially redeemed by a decent black bean sauce. And the most frightening part of the croquette scallops and shrimp is how uninteresting this mix of seafood and veggies really is. But the croquettes, unexpectedly scrumptious fried milk fritters, showed untapped talent.
So on my third visit, I mapped out a strategy to get quality Chinese food here. How? I asked for it. Putting aside the menu, I asked if the chef could whip up a platter of steamed chicken and prepare a whole fish. He came sprinting out of the kitchen to express his assurances that he could.
First, though, he advised us to order deep-fried crispy tofu as an appetizer. (It's on the menu.) I couldn't believe how good they were, eight ethereally light pieces of tofu, in a delicate, tempuralike crust. The chef clearly had his heart in them.
The two entrees had that same quality. "You're smart," said the proprietor, as she set down the juicy steamed half-chicken. "Most Americans want their chicken fried." Not if they ate this, I thought, as I dipped the sweet, succulent poultry in a snappy ginger sauce. The gorgeous whole sea bass, steamed to flaky perfection and ornamented with a riveting ginger scallion sauce, was equally impressive.
Eating off Super Dragon's menu is a lot like driving a Corvette to the corner supermarket: Considering what's under the hood, you're not getting your share of thrills. Someday, maybe Super Dragon will throw caution aside, and open up the throttle.
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