Weird to the Wise
The kitchen is out of frogs' legs.
I'm disappointed. Frog is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. My dining companion is wrinkling his nose at the thought of nibbling on the little limbs, but he's never actually had the delicacy before. Trust me, I tell him: Frogs' legs, when absolutely fresh and expertly cooked, have a flavor and texture that's like a cross between young chicken and lobster. The menu at Song Hau offers them swimming in butter -- a byproduct of the French occupancy of Vietnam in the 1800s -- but they're also served in the classic Asian presentation I prefer, stir-fried with bold lemongrass and chiles. We've got to come again, I insist, so he can share this wonder with me.
The lack of legs is to be my only disappointment with Song Hau, one of my new all-time favorite dining destinations. The recently opened Vietnamese restaurant at 43rd Avenue and Bethany Home stocks the other exotic ingredients I enjoy and can't find anywhere else in town: lotus stem, jellyfish, sea cucumber, fish balls, raw squid. Yes, these can be startling ingredients for the uninitiated, but they're beautiful to those brave enough to take the plunge.
I'm overjoyed, but not stunned, to have found Song Hau where I did -- in a run-down strip mall in the West Valley. This area of our city, while long lamented as being deprived of high-end eateries, is becoming a treasure trove of ethnic rich restaurants. It's particularly abundant with Asian fare -- Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and, yes, Vietnamese.
What a weird, wonderful week it's been. During the same short span of seven days that brought me Song Hau, I've come across a second surprise I can't wait to share: another Vietnamese eatery. But this cafe is in a completely unexpected location -- north Scottsdale. Yes, north Scottsdale, home of overpriced steak houses, glitzy nightclubs, and very little that could truly be called ethnic. Yet now Tea Light Cafe has opened, and with it a ravishing menu of authentic specialties like banh mi (Asian sandwiches), goi cuon (cold rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp and cilantro) and pho (noodle soup). The cafe sits in a quiet corner of the Scottsdale 101 mall, home of the glitzy Harkins Ciné Capri, the upscale Home Depot spin-off Expo, and the trendy-terrible Elephant Bar chain restaurant (reassuring motto of mass American consumer quality: "Elephant Size Portions").
I drag my frog-phobic friend there for lunch, gushing over how great it is to find banh mi thit nguoi -- liver and ham sandwich -- in my culturally challenged neighborhood. He just looks at me across the table, and mumbles something about having once tried something that looked like goi cuon at the Cheesecake Factory.
It's more than personal greed that makes me so happy to find Song Hau and Tea Light. I truly hope that these two new places will encourage more diners to explore Vietnamese dining. Born from an innovative marriage of French and Chinese cooking techniques, this is one of the world's most fascinating cuisines.
My friend is curious when I order Song Hau's goi tom thit sua ngo sen (salad). He admits that on his own, he would have stuck to our other appetizer, cha gio, crispy light egg rolls that we wrap in lettuce and dunk in sweet-and-sour fish sauce (nuoc mam). But when the salad arrives, he immediately sees the joy in experimenting. The colorful mound has to be eaten to be understood, a complex recipe of lotus stem, jellyfish, shrimp and pork capped with chopped peanuts, cilantro and cucumber. The dish is lightly sour in its vinegar marinade, sweetly fishy, rubbery with jelly strips, crunchy and cold all at once.
Afraid I'll scare off my dining companion, I describe another dish as chow mein. Actually, it's a massive plate of hu tieu ap chao xao thap cam -- an intricate recipe of battered shrimp, squid, crab, sea cucumber, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp and shrimp balls, celery, Asian mushrooms, onion, broccoli, water chestnut, on choy, carrot, green pepper and baby corn in a silky white sauce over golden griddled flat noodles. Why ask? Just eat, and enjoy.
Please, consider banh xeo nothing more intimidating than a crispy crepe, a savory yellow pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, sliced shrimp and roasted pork. Ca luoi trau chien do nuoc mam gung is simply wonderfully moist and flaky flounder, served whole, lightly breaded, fried and anointed with pungent ginger fish sauce. And how can anyone excuse Red Lobster fish as a bargain when Song Hau's beautiful plate can be had for just $8.99?
Tea Light Cafe is a quieter introduction to the Vietnamese concept. This is fast food, housed in a small store, and it fits in well in north Scottsdale, with a wild paint job of mint green, neon yellow, lavender, lilac, peach and orange. The tables are periwinkle framed with blond wood, and the order counter is topped in stainless steel. It's sparkling clean, flooded with bamboo plants. The staffers are courteous and they bring our food to our table.
My friend is immediately at home. This time, I'm the one who's surprised. I go in expecting obnoxious gringo-ized Vietnamese (like what Tokyo Express has done to Japanese cuisine with its sugary teriyaki gunk). I leave giddy -- 99 percent of what Tea Light is doing is dead-on real. This family-run operation isn't pandering to its zip code or falling into the fast-food trap of cutting corners on quality.
It's a short menu -- a compact collection of egg rolls, noodle dishes, soups and sandwiches (no frogs' legs, alas). Yet it's a selection I don't often see -- particularly the banh mi, which is not just a sandwich, but a food craze that's helped define the Vietnamese-American culture. A staple of Vietnamese delis, banh mi is a crusty baguette slathered with homemade mayonnaise and layered with sliced chile, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrot and onion. Fillings sound ordinary: meatball, barbecued beef, pork and ham. Except the meatball is the unfamiliar pressed type found in pho soup, the beef is slices of sweet grilled meat rather than traditional sauce-wet barbecue, the pork comes in balls, and the ham consists of three varieties piled atop each other, cold cuts of spongy consistency and a smear of steamed pâté. Only shredded chicken is close to what most diners will expect. No matter the shock -- after a few tentative bites, my friend can't stop exclaiming about it all, "Hey, this is good!"
Whatever the variety of a menu, my acid test for any Vietnamese restaurant is its pho -- that distinctive soup based on a clear but complex blend of onion, beef bone, ginger, carrot, cinnamon and star anise that is lovingly simmered for up to 12 hours. Song Hau offers nine types; Tea Light has two. All are good, particularly Song's pho tai with rare slices of beef, and Tea Light's chicken model, generous with carved breast meat, shallots, onion, and my add-ins of cilantro, mint, jalapeño, bean sprouts and lime.
"It's soup," says my companion, pulling at clumps of sticky skinny noodles with his chopsticks. "Just really good soup."
Trust me, I tell him. Go stick your face a big steaming bowl of hu tieu my tho kho nuoc banh dai and savor the elaborate elegance of clear noodle soup with sliced pork, ground pork, shrimp, squid, sliced liver, hard-boiled quail egg, fish ball and shrimp ball. Don't think about it -- live and learn.
Then, we'll come back for the frog.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.