If you are on the hunt for a new favorite place for Chinese food — real Chinese food — New Hong Kong Restaurant isn't the kind of place you might plan on visiting, even though you've probably driven by it more times than you can remember.
From the outside, the restaurant seems to have stopped in time. Its weathered orange and sea foam green Chinese façade and neon sign (which spells out the restaurant's original name, Hong Kong Restaurant) conjure an image of an establishment whose heyday was decades ago.
Inside is more of the same: A once-grand arched entryway decorated with Chinese symbols gives way to a room of worn red carpet and dark, wood-paneled walls dotted with Asian artwork. If it weren't for the drop ceiling, a soundtrack of pop hits from the '80s, and a purring Pepsi machine, one might think little, if any, attention has been paid to the place, on the busy northwest corner of Indian School Road and 24th Street.
But then there is the food and, with it, the realization that despite its appearance, New Hong Kong is very much alive — with a pulsating culinary heart.
Here, tangled nests of expertly prepared stir-fried noodles, trembling clay pots nearly blowing off their lids to expose steaming, flavor-packed broths, and moist, marinated meats represent the well-balanced flavors, fresh ingredients, and deftness of Cantonese cooking techniques.
It's enough to make you kick yourself for not stopping in sooner.
Blame the self-abuse on one man: Jian Yu. A longtime chef in his hometown of Kaiping, in China's Guangdong province, Yu brought his family to Phoenix in 1997. His cooking developed a reputation among Chinese residents, who followed him from one restaurant gig to the next until he took over Hong Kong Restaurant (adding the word "New") seven years ago.
"He's very picky," says Mei Yu, Jian's daughter and a server working alongside her mom. "He's a picky eater — picky about food and picky about ingredients. If he doesn't like the looks of something he's shopping for that day, he won't make the dish it's used in."
If you aren't given the Chinese menu, ask for it. It's got the dishes you've come for, not the ones on the Americanized menu or value buffet, something the Yus have kept in place for western palates. The six-plus pages, including a separate sheet for specials, include an enormous number of options, all with minimal descriptions, some written in Chinese. It can be daunting. But you could do worse than start with the most familiar. Better yet: If Mei's on hand, tell her what you like and let her do the rest.
In true Cantonese tradition, soup is served before a meal, and at New Hong Kong, the soups are a good place to start. West Lake soup, made with chunks of chopped beef and tofu bobbing in broth made thick with corn starch, has a smooth and mellow taste. And a shredded pork and seaweed soup, deep green and packed with chunks of black Chinese mushrooms, is simple and delectably salty. For a kick, add a few shakes of white pepper.
The Cantonese are best known for their expertise in stir-fry, but steaming and deep-frying also come into play. Jian Yu is a master at all three, and there isn't a dish at New Hong Kong that will be served less than perfect in its preparation.
Yu's salt-and-pepper chicken wings and pork chops may be two of the best-kept deep-fried secrets in the Valley. The wings arrive moist with a golden brown, delicately crisp coating; the chunks of pork are heartier and crunchier. Both are enhanced with diced garlic, onions, and Thai chile peppers.
You've probably had house chow mein and Singapore rice noodles before, but Yu's versions, deftly prepared and bold in flavor, are worth a comparison. The Hong Kong-style house chow mein features browned, crispy fried noodles loaded with a glistening pile of stir-fried shrimp, Chinese mushrooms, chunks of fish, and slices of bright red barbecue pork. Even better is the Singapore rice noodle. Its barbecue pork and shrimp mix with egg and bean sprouts in stir-fried vermicelli whose curry seasoning makes it especially addictive.
Cantonese cuisine incorporates nearly all forms of edible meats. "There is a Chinese saying," Mae says smiling, "that we will eat any animal whose back faces the sky."
There aren't any snails or snakes on the menu, but offal lovers won't have to look too hard to find a dish that incorporates fish maw, pork stomach, or sweet-and-sour pig feet. The latter can be found in the handwritten portion of the menu, which Mae says is most popular with the older Chinese guests. Featuring hunks of gelatinous trotters covered in a pool of thick brown sauce — sweet, vinegary, gingery, and dark as sin — the taste may be best described as something akin to barbecued gummy bears. An interesting dish, to be sure, but probably not one I would order again.
In the more familiar realm, there is an excellent dish of spare ribs with pumpkin. Featuring chunks of braised, bone-in pork mixed with soft cubes of Chinese pumpkin and embellished with seasonings of garlic, soy, and star anise, the taste — savory, licorice-like, and slightly sweet — could be reminiscent of a Chinese-style Thanksgiving dinner. Simpler but no less stellar is the famous Cantonese dish black pepper beef filet. Its slices of deep, dark beef are thicker than most, and Jian prepares them rare enough for a tender, peppery bite best enjoyed with stir-fried crunchy onions and scallions.
And for seafood lovers, soft pieces of sautéed white fish in the spicy seafood sauce known as XO should satisfy nicely.
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But perhaps the form of cooking Jian Yu is the fussiest about (and the most adept at) is the clay pot. Sometimes labeled as "hot pot," this ancient technique prepares food in unglazed, water-soaked clay vessels that release steam during the cooking process. Yu insists on purchasing his clay pots in San Francisco and prizes them so highly that he washes them all himself.
They arrive at your table shaking and nearly boiling over, their lids removed to reveal a cloud of steam and the intoxicating aromas of the ingredients within: a mouthwatering magic act of — ta-da! — Chinese comfort food. There are chunks of tender beef brisket and large white pieces of radish-like daikon with bits of star anise and chunks of ginger; nuggets of strongly flavored bone-in mutton cut with flat yellow pieces of bean curd and fermented bean curd paste; and chewy spirals of pork stomach with scallions and peppercorns that, despite its offal-ness, was the clear winner at my table.
You should inquire about Jian Yu's sticky rice balls. They're not on the menu, but he sometimes has them left over from large parties or simply has made a batch of this beloved treat from his childhood. The size of baseballs, these orbs of fried sticky rice have a golden, crispy coating as delicate as spun silk and are filled with sweet, fatty Chinese bacon and sausage. As if they couldn't be made any more delectable, Yu serves them with a thick sauce made of dried sweet plums, which, naturally, he pits himself.
As painfully shy as he is picky, personally thanking Jian Yu for his one-man show is next to impossible. But something tells me coming back for another visit is thanks enough.