Years ago, I loved to wander deep into New York's Chinatown — as far as my feet would take me, until none of the signs were in English anymore — always knowing that I'd find some kind of satisfaction.
If I was lonely, people-watching and random conversations with shopkeepers cheered me up. If I was bored with daily routines, I inevitably discovered something out of the ordinary — perhaps a fortuneteller, or a group of tai chi practitioners in the park. And if I was hungry, well, there was good food at every turn.
Since moving to Phoenix, I've had to change my habits a bit. Now I satisfy my curiosity in the brightly lit aisles of large Asian grocery stores across town, including Lee Lee Oriental Supermarkets in Chandler and Peoria, and 99 Ranch Market at the Chinese Cultural Center in Phoenix.
The newest of the bunch, open since October, is Mesa's Mekong Plaza, a shopping and dining complex at the southwest corner of Dobson and Main. Most of the tenants here are Vietnamese, but because I've never been to Vietnam, the slick, modern food courts of Singapore came to mind when I set foot in the place — it's shiny and a little surreal, so clean that you can practically see your own reflection on the marbled floors. (One day, I even saw an employee scrubbing the front sidewalk with a mop.)
At the heart of the complex is Mekong Supermarket, a bright, 38,000-square-foot grocery store with aisle after aisle of products from Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, and beyond. The produce section is brimming with beautiful greens, and the fresh fish case is unbelievable, a dazzling display of more varieties than I've ever seen around here. They have tanks of live fish, too.
But since it's not good to shop on an empty stomach, before heading into the store, I like to grab a bite at one of the onsite restaurants, which can be accessed from the front, like at a strip mall, or from inside the building. Not all the planned restaurants have opened yet, but there are currently three different full-service spots for Vietnamese food. Each has its own charms.
At MyLynn Café, a slick little eatery decorated with diamond-plate metal wall panels, fiery orange blown-glass lamps, and flat-screen TVs for nightly karaoke, the specialties of the house revolve around Kobe beef dishes and a variety of hot pots, from goat meat to hot and sour seafood.
Bun bo hue was the spicy beef noodle soup advertised in neon in the front window, and it was pretty tasty, especially with the paper-thin shreds of cabbage and sprouts and fresh mint that accompanied it. The spice was subtle, not overpowering the beef flavor, and there was plenty of meat in this huge steaming bowl, along with slippery noodles that reminded me of udon, only skinnier.
Better yet was banh mi bo kho, a fantastic stew of tender beef chunks, carrots, and onions, flavored with cinnamon and anise. It was served with two fresh, warm pieces of baguette, perfect for sopping up the sauce. I also enjoyed com tom bo kobe nuong, a simple plate of rice topped with succulent strips of marinated, grilled beef and plump shrimp, with a salad and tangy nuoc cham sauce.
To drink, I recommend one of the smoothies — avocado, especially! — made with fresh fruit, ice, and condensed milk. Mine was creamy and irresistible, like a dessert that lasted the entire meal.
A few doors down from MyLynn, next to the main entrance, there's another decent place called Com Tam Thuan Kieu. The vibe here is more homey, with a warm color scheme and fancy flower arrangements just inside the front door. And there's one detail I must mention, in case you miss it, as I did on my first visit: the "cash only" sign. The ATM out in the hallway will jack you for a few bucks, so be prepared.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu is a place to gorge on enormous plates of food, most of which run $6.99. Incredibly, the menu has more than two hundred different items — rice dishes, noodle soups, and rice vermicelli dishes — but if you look closely, you'll see that every conceivable combination of toppings constitutes its own dish.
Shredded pork comes on many of the com tam dishes, which feature a steaming mound of broken rice and different meats. I can only describe this pork as an acquired taste, as it was mostly shredded pork skin, not meat. The rubbery texture and earthy flavor was definitely not what I expected.
But besides that, I was impressed with the offerings. The special appetizer plate was heaped with lots of goodies, all meant to be wrapped in a piece of lettuce and dipped in sauce. The "charbroiled meatball" seemed like flavorless steamed mystery meat, but the onion-stuffed beef rolls were fantastic, the super-crunchy egg rolls were fun to bite into, and I liked the shrimp paste and shrimp-paste-filled crispy tofu, too. You can also get any of those things on top of noodles, red rice, or vermicelli patties.
In the way of meat, this place did a great job with moist grilled chicken (which tasted faintly of Chinese five-spice), savory-sweet charbroiled beef ribs, and tender marinated pork. To perk myself up and head off a food coma, I slurped up a potent iced coffee with condensed milk.
Right across from Com Tam Than Kieu, look for the cheekily named unPhogettable, an airy, bustling noodle shop with bamboo motifs painted on the wall. While the two restaurants serve some of the same things, such as bun (rice vermicelli) and mi (egg noodle soups), unPhogettable specializes in pho, the aromatic beef-broth soup filled with rice vermicelli.
I went for the pho dac biet bo vien, which was truly the works: thinly sliced rare beef, tender flank, brisket, tripe, tendon, and meatballs. The kitchen was generous with the meat, and the broth itself had a rich, savory taste.
Next time I'm here, I'll pass on the rice paper-wrapped goi cuon rolls, which were stuffed with too much lettuce — and iceberg, at that. Instead, I'll go with crispy fried cha gio rolls, which packed more flavor punch. Deep-fried chicken wings, coated in a lightly crunchy crust, were another finger-licking treat.
Bun topped with fresh, tender grilled shrimp was as good as any I've had, but what intrigued me more was a southern Vietnamese specialty soup called bun nuoc leo. The broth was mildly spicy, with a bit of tanginess that complemented the freshness of two huge pieces of white fish, several fat shrimp, and sliced pork. It also contained noodles that resembled thick spaghetti, but the fish was the highlight for me. Another comforting option was hu tieu hai san, a light pork-based soup with delicate rice noodles and lots of seafood — fish balls, shrimp, calamari, and ribbons of imitation crab.
Without a doubt, Mekong Plaza isn't big enough to merit a full day of aimless wandering. But it still has the essential feature of any good Asian enclave: good food at every turn.