Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
20: Beef pies at Chou's Kitchen
From the outside, Chou's Kitchen looks like your average strip-mall Chinese take-out joint. Take a closer look, though, and you'll see that Chou's isn't just another temple to sticky orange chicken, fortune cookies, and other typical American Chinese fare.
Chou's Kitchen, which is operated by partners Lulu Zhou and Sunny Zhao, specializes in the cooking of northeast China's sweeping Dongbei region. In the wide and diverse spectrum of contemporary Chinese cooking, northeastern China often gets overshadowed by more well-known regional cuisines, like the bold, complex, and peppercorn-laden cooking of Sichuan, which is popular across China and the U.S.
The cooking of Dongbei, by contrast, is known for its hearty and more subtle properties. Wheat, not rice, is the region's staple starch, which means that noodles, flatbreads, and dumplings are common in northeastern Chinese cooking.
Another well-known regional dish is guo bao rou, thinly sliced pork in a deftly balanced sweet-sour sauce. To overcome the challenges of short growing seasons and grim winters, chefs rely on pickling; suan cai, for instance, or pickled cabbage, is a hallmark of Dongbei cooking.
Metro Phoenix may seem worlds away from the wintry landscape of northeastern China, but you'll find that the flavors of the region translate to the desert pretty flawlessly. Must-try specialties at Chou's include the green bean jelly, a refreshing salad featuring wide cellophane noodles and a cornucopia of carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts, ham, egg, and mushrooms.
"Stewed pork neck bones" may not sound tantalizing, but this simple dish is intensely satisfying: the tender, garlicky meat flakes right off the thick bones. Chou's Kitchen also makes some mean dumplings, including a credible rendition of Xiaolongbao, the famous Shanghai soup dumplings, which here are delightfully wobbly and fragrant.
The thing to try at least once, though, are the beef pies. Chou's beef pies are wondrous, hockey puck-shaped pastries stuffed with pan-fried beef patties, which are steeped in a light, gingery broth. You want to take your time with the beef pies. They're served incredibly hot, and it's a good idea to nibble a small opening to help release some of the steam trapped inside. The meat, once you get to it, has a gentle crisp, and the broth pulsates with sweet, garlicky flavor.
True, this is a dish designed to warm your bones in the depths of winter. The meat pies at Chou's are so good, though, you'll gladly devour them well into a sweltering Arizona summer.
Chou's Kitchen. 910 North Alma School Road, Chandler; 480-821-2888. Thursday through Tuesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Wednesdays.
1250 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe; 480-557-8888. Mondays through Fridays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturdays & Sundays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong
25: Lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba
24: The Special at Grand Avenue Pizza Company
23: Red chile at Elmer's Tacos
22: Marranitos at La Purisima Bakery
21: Kronuts from Karl's Bakery
20: Beef pies at Chou's Kitchen