TIKI OR LEAVE IT
It could be any Saturday night.
The maitre d' at Trader Vic's leads us to a small table near the restaurant's fire doors. It is a miserable location, one I would like to change. "Is this the nonsmoking section?" I query.
Wordlessly, our host swoops our menus off the rejected table and leads us into a secluded alcove off the main dining room. Now we are truly in Polynesian pariahland.
"At least we don't have to worry about boats falling on us," my dining accomplice jokes. No, we don't. Nor do we have to worry about being singled out for special treatment. We're just two unknown customers here at Trader Vic's--a place where being known apparently signals the difference between exile and attention.
"Do you need to make special reservations to sit in that room?" I ask our female bus person. "I'm sorry," she says. "I don't speak English." She deposits some lahvosh and butter, and leaves our bamboo-thatched hut.
We peruse the well-handled drink menu, milking what chuckles we can from the corny names and high prices. My favorite is the "Doctor Funk of Tahiti" for $5.25. My dining accomplice prefers the $5.75 "Suffering Bastard." We both agree it is hard to top the "Shingle Stain." At $5.75, it sounds like a medical condition one should make efforts to prevent. Neither my dining accomplice nor I has ever set foot into Trader Vic's, here or anywhere else. We were both kids when the restaurant opened in the early Sixties, when things Hawaiian and South Pacific were all the rage. By the late Seventies, I was too busy eating Chinese and Japanese to fiddle with Polynesian, though I admit Warren Zevon made it tempting when he sang, "I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's./His hair was perfect." Despite this hip endorsement, fear of drinks with paper umbrellas threatened to keep me away from Trader Vic's indefinitely. Then one day I heard our local branch of this veteran institution might be closing. Nostalgia and curiosity joined forces and motivated me to check it out. Before it checks out, so to speak.
For two people with exotic expectations, the dinner menu is a letdown. No longer the amazing multipage volume I'm told it was a few years back, Trader Vic's orientation is not Polynesian at all, but expensive continental. You have a better chance of ordering veal or lamb chops than anything from the South Seas. Oh, sure, there's Indonesian curry, and the last page of the menu features Chinese selections--but where are the stuffed pineapples? We ask our waiter if he has any flaming appetizers. How about the Cho Cho With Hibachi, we ask. He shakes his head and recommends the Cosmo Tidbits. Though it's $10, we go for it.
Butterfly-shaped condiment dishes filled with hot mustard and barbecue sauce are placed on plates in front of us. The Cosmo Tidbits arrive elevated on a silver serving dish. There are two fried prawns, two spareribs, two slices of pork and what look like two fried won tons. We divide up the goodies and begin tasting.
The sesame-topped pork slices are tender and especially nice when dipped into the barbecue sauce. The fried won tons are crispy and stuffed with a creamy mixture; only later do I realize these must be the crab rangoon. I don't taste any crab. The spareribs are typical, though to their credit, on the meaty side. Finally, the fried prawns are breaded and tasty.
When we have picked through the tidbits, our bus person brings us hot towels. This is perhaps the high point of our evening. A hot towel is exactly what we need at this moment. We are most grateful. I feel refreshed and pampered.
The maitre d' is setting up a large table directly in front of us. There goes what little view we had. Service is leisurely, so we have plenty of undisturbed time to watch this new table fill up with sixtyish couples. They fight over who will sit in the large "banana" chairs and order a round of drinks.
On the other side of our alcove, we see our waiter tossing two salads on a cart. Could they be ours? When he carries them toward us, we know. So much for tableside preparation at Trader Vic's--at least in Exile Alcove.
It would be tough to top the fantastic caesar salad I recently enjoyed at Remington's. Trader Vic's version certainly doesn't do it: It tastes too much of egg and anchovies and the lettuce isn't chilled enough.
The people at the big table in front of us order another round of drinks and discuss golf scores. In fact, everyone seems to drink a lot at Trader Vic's. Hard drinks. At the other table we can see, a jacketed man in a yellow tie reads his fortune to his table of female companions. "You will experience change for the better." He laughs and looks at the woman to his left. "Louise says, `How can things get better?'"
Once again, across the room, we see our waiter preparing two plates from a sterno server on a cart. You guessed it, our entrees. We have missed out on the tableside prep again.
The chili frog legs promise to be fiery, and they are. But what a presentation! Smothered in heavy brown sauce and served with an ice cream scoop of white rice, they are not what I'd call aesthetically appealing. Aside from being spicy, these thawed croakers are just not that exciting. Even the few crunchy snow peas I can locate in the sauce can't save this dish, which, as Bobcat Goldthwaite would say, "Tastes just like chicken! Tastes just like chicken!" Only a little fishier.
Chicken Calcutta, an Indonesian curry, is worse. Even the array of condiments (called sambals) which accompany it can't elevate this dish from mediocrity. It's not spicy, it's mealy, and the chunks of chicken are a turnoff. At a certain point, we simply stop eating it. Funny, the rest of this tony older crowd appears to be enjoying itself. In fact, the big table in front of us has just ordered a third round of drinks. Maybe that's the key.
Our plates are finally cleared. Before we are even offered dessert, two fortune cookies are placed in front of us by our bus person. "We want to order dessert," I tell her. She tells us she will bring our waiter, who hasn't talked to us in fifteen minutes.
It's another five before he makes it over. It is not his fault. He seems to have the whole restaurant as his station. We order dessert. It is another seventeen minutes before it arrives.
The pina colada mousse is good, but odd. Textured more like a flan, it is dense, molded and low to the ground. There's some kind of clear sauce on top and it's sprinkled with peanuts. When I think about it, it reminds me of those Cool-Whip refrigerator desserts from the Seventies.
The Snow Ball, however, is a winner. Coconut ice cream is covered with chocolate sauce, then topped with fresh coconut shavings. I love it. I'm sorry it's sitting in front of my dining accomplice.
After visiting Trader Vic's in its current state, I'm not too sad about its possible future demise. True, the kitschy interior is a time trip, but is it worth it when the food is overpriced and the service leaves a lot to be desired? Pretensions aside, the mark of a truly fine restaurant is that nobody is treated like a second-class citizen.
Lunch Angel is a funny name for the Tempe area's first Vietnamese restaurant. Then again, Lunch Angel is not really billing itself as a Vietnamese restaurant. Rather, it describes itself as a reasonably priced restaurant serving "Unique Oriental Cuisine"--this at the recommendation of a consultant within the Asian community. The idea behind Lunch Angel is to make Vietnamese cuisine easy and palatable to Americans. For simplicity's sake, its menu has been organized into fifteen platter dishes. They range in price from $2.95 to $5.95. Some platters offer just one dish, others a combination of dishes; all come with rice noodles, steamed or fried rice and marinated vegetables. The interior of the restaurant is casual, yet soothing. The walls and carpet are complimentary shades of green. Tables and chairs are comfortable white-plastic patio furniture. Nagel prints and stark dried-flower arrangements give the take-out, delivery or eat-in restaurant an Eighties feel.
My dining accomplice and I choose a table and sit down. We are immediately greeted and brought water.
We order three platters which offer a combination of dishes. I also order iced "Angel's Coffee"--described as "special Oriental-style served in a unique way." When it comes, it is, in fact, Vietnamese-style coffee: An individual metal filter drips coffee onto a layer of condensed milk at the bottom of a tall glass; ice comes separately. The combined product is delicious--a thick, icy mocha drink.
The kitchen is slow on the day we visit. First out is the #1 Angel Salad. A modification of ga xe phai (shredded cabbage and chicken salad), Angel Salad features pieces of grilled chicken breast and shrimp served on a bed of iceberg lettuce, celery and pale tomato. I find it a little dull--too much bland iceberg lettuce--but conclude that it might be a nice choice for a summer dieter. Sadly, it's no improvement on the Vietnamese original. Sauces play a big role in this country's cuisine. At Lunch Angel, diners have the choice of traditional or house dressings with each platter. Traditional dressing is nuoc cham, a.k.a. Vietnamese special sauce, which is tangy, sweet-hot and clear. House dressing is also sweet, but dark, like teriyaki sauce, and coconut flavored. Also available on request is red chili sauce, for those who like to live on the edge. As I've warned in the past, this stuff is blowtorch hot. We make use of our sauces (we ask for all three) and pick at lettuce until our other two platters arrive. Both come in attractive sea-green-plastic molded trays. We request chopsticks and they are brought to us.
The #9 House Special Platter is a carnivore's dream. There's grilled curry chicken, a beef kebab complete with pineapple and maraschino cherry, grilled pork and spring rolls (cha gio). I especially like the pork, which I dip into the dark house sauce. The spring rolls are very nice also; I ask for lettuce to wrap them in and my waitress happily obliges. As is customary, I dip my wrapped spring roll into the clear sauce before eating. Yum!
Composed of wrapped shrimp, crystal roll and fried scallop, the #15 Tropical Platter seems more authentic and exciting than the #9. The crystal rolls (shrimp, rice noodle and lettuce in rice paper) are fresh and lovely when dipped in clear sauce. The wrapped shrimp are chewy--marinated beef binds them. Finally, the fried scallops are tender and steaming hot.
If Lunch Angel isn't the authentic Vietnamese restaurant I've been clamoring for in the East Valley, it is at least a step in the right direction. This healthy, attractive lunch spot is a heavenly idea whose time has come.
Trader Vic's, 7111 Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale, 945-6341. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m., Sunday.
Lunch Angel, 4427 South Rural Road, Suite 3, Tempe, 491-1747. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday; noon to 9 p.m., Saturday. Closed Sunday. The people at the big table in front of us order another round of drinks and discuss golf scores. Everyone seems to drink a lot at Trader Vic's.
ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST: THE STORY OF WILL ... v6-06-90
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