Oriental Gourmet, 322 East Camelback, Phoenix, 285-0353. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Six years ago, when I first came to town, I asked a friend who'd been living here since 1974 for some pointers. Where's a good neighborhood to live? Where's a good bookstore? Where's a good ethnic restaurant?
For housing he took us over by the Phoenix Mountains Preserve beyond the Dreamy Draw, a wonderful location. For books he drove us to Changing Hands, a great place to browse in Tempe. Then he sent us to eat at an awful Chinese restaurant in downtown Phoenix.
When I looked at my chop suey plate--about the most exotic offering--I almost started to weep. After the first bite of gristly meat and canned vegetables, I was ready to reload the U-Haul and move back to California.
Earthquakes, traffic, crime, smog, mudslides and sky-high car insurance rates suddenly didn't seem so bad, after all. To me, the availability of good ethnic food has always been a critical quality-of-life issue.
So what if my kids had to duck bullets on the way to their Los Angeles elementary school? At least we could celebrate the gangs' poor marksmanship with a decent ethnic meal.
But we stuck it out here, and I'm glad we did. The Valley is caught up in a terrific ethnic-restaurant boom. In just the past year, two cuisines formerly unknown to Phoenix, Laotian and Brazilian, have made their way here. And now, two new places, offering authentic bargain-priced fare from the Philippines and Taiwan, look like they'll also be boosting our quality of life.
Early this summer, Oriental Gourmet moved into the site last occupied by Giorgio's Italian Restaurant. Divided into three cozy dining areas, it's small, spare and bare. Contrary to the usual ethnic-restaurant-decorating pattern, there are almost no artifacts from the Philippine homeland. The Popeye and Olive Oyl dolls on the rest-room doors are the most distinctive decor touch.
But this is no run-down ethnic shack. Linen tablecloths and cloth napkins create a small touch of elegance. And someone will come by and light the candle on the table.
The friendly family that operates Oriental Gourmet is eager to guide first-timers through the mysteries of Philippine fare. They explain the dishes carefully, and even provide tastes. Good thing--nothing in other Asian cuisines quite prepares you for what you'll find here.
That's because Spanish and Malay flavors figure heavily in Filipino fare. Different, exotic, even strange, this food may take some getting used to. But persistence has its rewards.
One of the easier ways to get acclimated is to start off with fried Shanghai lumpia, bite-size egg rolls stuffed with meat that you dip into a sweet and sour sauce. Much more interesting, however, is Lumpiang Sariwa. Here, the vegetable, pork and chicken filling is enfolded by an egg-roll wrapper that undergoes no further cooking. It's almost like a crepe, topped by ground peanuts and submerged in a sweet sauce. More timid souls probably will prefer nibbling skewers of tasty marinated pork, served over fried rice.
Cagey menu readers can usually tell when a dish might be a little too "authentic" for their tastes. Estopadong dila, thin slices of sauted ox tongue, could fall into this category. So could kambing, chunks of goat meat affixed to the bone, simmered in a strong-flavored sauce studded with olives.
But the menu description of crispy pata might trick the unwary. It's innocuously called "pork leg simmered in its own juices and a special marinade, then deep-fried to a golden brown." Actually, it looks like something rescued from a caveman campfire, enormous hunks of hacked-up, bone-in leg meat. But after the initial confrontation, folks shouldn't have trouble dealing with the familiar pork flavors.
You don't have to be a native Tagalog speaker to appreciate the charms of the relleno chicken. It's got universal appeal: chicken stuffed with seasoned ground beef, steamed and deep-fried to crispy perfection. (The menu says the bird is boneless. It's not.)
Morcon, stuffed rolled beef, owes more to Spain than the Far East. Local carnivores should be pleased. Flank steak is rolled up with a hot dog and hard-boiled egg, cut into slices and deep-fried. A thick meat sauce embellished with lots of onions provides some finishing punch.
The Malay influence--coconut--appears in guinataang shrimp, a dish that sports real ethnic flair. A dozen whole shrimp, with head and shell attached, are cooked with squash and Chinese long beans in an offbeat, creamy coconut sauce. At $7, it's a cheap and filling way to get your crustacean thrills.
Noodle fans will find happiness in pancit dishes. There's no risk at all in pancit bibon, thin rice noodles studded with chicken and pork. But pancit palabok is a lot more complex, a seafood dish in a smoky, fish-flavored sauce that requires a certain amount of perseverance to appreciate.
Oriental Gourmet may have the funkiest dessert menu in town. These are ethnic sweets with a vengeance. Work your way past apple-pie prejudices and you can have some fun.
The homemade ice creams are the least threatening, and they're refreshingly delicious. Try the version studded with pieces of jackfruit. The maple-flavored leche flan also goes down easy.
If you're feeling adventurous, go for the jaleang ube, a very heavy and very sweet blend of purple yam, coconut, milk, butter and cheese. Bibingkang malagkit, a ball of sticky rice mortared with coconut milk, is equally rich. But halo-halo takes the risk-taker's prize: Red beans and tropical fruits sit at the botton of a sundae glass, topped with crushed ice and sweetened condensed milk. Don't look for this in your supermarket freezer, unless you live in Manila.
Oriental Gourmet is not for everyone. It doesn't try to be. And for us ethnic food lovers who crave the widest variety of tastes, that's its principal charm.
Fuji Express, 1440 South Country Club, Mesa, 969-6868. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
You know those movies where the frowzy, plain-looking heroine is persuaded to remove her glasses, let down her hair and put on a form-fitting dress? To everyone's astonishment, she turns out to be a knockout.
You have to work your way past comparable obstacles at Fuji Express to find the culinary beauty hidden beneath the drab exterior.
First, there's the misleading name, which suggests Japanese fast food. Second, there's the nondescript fast-food look--an Order Here counter and no discernible charm. There's also the piped-in country music. Thousands of meals out have proven to me that you're as likely to utter the words "great food" and "Billy Ray Cyrus" in the same breath as "matzo ball soup" and "Ayatollah Khomeini."
Finally, there's the menu itself. It's a dismaying list of Asian fast-food combo plates I make it my business to avoid: teriyaki beef, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork.
To uncover the eye-opening Taiwanese gems, you need to do a little detective work. Find the English-language menu posted on the side wall. It lists about 15 noodle soups, for which Taiwan is famous. Also, get the amiable proprietor to translate and explain the dishes written out in Chinese on the marker board alongside. Then order just about anything from these two sources.
It's not soup weather yet, but these meals-in-a-bowl are worth sweating over. The pork-and-pickled-vegetable model features a meaty, peppery broth flavored with scallions and cilantro, and lots of noodles. The milder duck soup brings a surprising amount of duck on the bone for the $3.95 tag. And the house special soup comes swimming with bits of chicken, pork and squid, two unshelled shrimp, some dreaded "krab," thin rice noodles and shredded cabbage and carrot.
When I asked the owner why she didn't write out the Chinese menu in English, she had a reasonable explanation. Words like "intestine" and "gizzard" apparently make Mesans jittery. (Me, too, sometimes.) But most of these dishes are much too good to be left only to Chinese readers.
My favorite is the gorgeous pan-fried oyster platter. It's the Taiwanese version of a Hangtown Fry: a big plate of oysters, dredged in rice flour, combined with egg, greens and scallions. You probably won't find this at your neighborhood chop suey parlor.
There are two kinds of dumplings. The ones that are skillet fried come sizzling, stuffed with chicken, pork and veggies. Meat dumplings are even better, ground beef coated with rice flour and moistened in a pungent tomato sauce.
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The Chinese menu also offers soups you won't find on the English-language soup list. Check out the shrimp and beef soup, at $5.95 the most expensive dish here. It's a spicy, robust broth with lots of ethnic zip, certainly nothing you'd expect to find in a Mesa shopping center fast-food spot.
If noodles turn you on, there's a reliable chow fun, starchy rice noodles flecked with chicken and bean sprouts. But the jia zhang mien is a more entertaining option. It's beef and rice noodles, in a unique sauce whose flavors can't be pinned down by Western vocabulary.
Bing, a Taiwanese sweet fashioned much like Oriental Gourmet's halo-halo, is a refreshing hoot. The proprietor fills a big plate with a pile of red and green beans, along with two kinds of odd gelatin flavors that clearly didn't come from a Jell-O box. Everything is topped by a huge mound of shaved ice, on which she pours sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk. Asian sweets don't usually translate very well in the West, and bing is obviously not for everyone.
Most people are going to feel more comfortable with Fuji Express's tame steam-table Asian dishes than they are with its hearty Taiwanese fare. But if you've made it this far through the column, you're probably not one of them.