A meal at Hong Kong Asian Diner in Tempe is like eating at your favorite aunt's house. That is, if your aunt owned a Chinese restaurant that served expertly executed Cantonese cuisine.
On Sunday nights, multi-generational Chinese families usually occupy the large tables in the center of the restaurant's clean but dated dining room. Owner Choi Kuang flits from one party to the next, making enthusiastic conversation with customers and urging guests to finish this dish or that.
She usually will be your server, and be warned: She's a powerful force -- in a good way.
Choi and her husband, Bai, the restaurant's chef, have owned Chinese restaurants for more than 20 years, first in West Phoenix for about a decade before opening Hong Kong Asian Diner almost 12 years ago. The interior of the space appears to have not been touched since then -- a faded poster of the Hong Kong skyline is the only décor.
Choi says her first restaurant's location in Sun City required they serve a menu of Americanized cuisine, but the Tempe customer base allows for a menu of more traditional Chinese food.
Don't let that intimidate you if you're not familiar with authentic offerings. If you need help placing your order, Choi won't be shy about jumping in. She may even take a seat at your table to guide your selections in depth.
Normally, it's a pet peeve of mine when servers help themselves to a spot at the table, but in this case, it feels more like you're taking a seat at her table.
Either way, just be sure you have the right menu before you begin.
The restaurant's standard menu of Americanized Chinese fare is handed to just about every customer on the first visit. It includes dishes like orange chicken and lacks a section dedicated to bubbling, flavor-packed hot pots.
If you don't see shark fin soup and ma po tofu just ask for "the other menu." Not only will you have a much better meal, but you also will instantly win over your hard-to-impress hostess.
Kuang will probably suggest you begin your meal with an order of the daily soup, an ever-changing kettle of vegetables and meats that comes in a consistently dark brown broth. On one trip, I found the soup to be a light medley of carrots, celery, and beef while on the next, my bowl swam with pork and pieces of bok choy.
In any case, it's a fine place to start, though not necessary. You'll want to save room for the hearty entrées.
If fish are swimming in the two small tanks at the back of the restaurant, order one. Kuang will usually suggest it if she feels you're up to the task. As she tells it, Hong Kong-style food means serving and eating animals whole: bones, head, eyes, and all.
In this case, it's a whole tilapia, which arrives at your table steamed with ginger and green onions. If you don't know how to carefully peel back the fish's delicate pink skin to reveal the flaky, white meat inside, let Kuang take care of it. While issuing countless warnings to watch out for bones -- advice you'd do well to follow -- she'll swiftly extract the tender meat from the tiny skeleton using nothing more than a spoon and fork.
The ginger does a knockout job of obscuring any intense fishy taste or smell in this dish; what you're left with is delicate white meat kissed with subtle flavors of spicy ginger and bright green onion. To notch up the flavor, just make use of the thinly sliced onions sprinkled over the dish just before it's served. It's simple but elegant and well executed, the kind of dish I'd like to imagine I could cook myself if I ever had the time or motivation to actually try.
On the other hand, the Peking duck is too magical to imagine cooking at home.
At Hong Kong Asian Diner, the elaborate duck dish arrives on two separate plates. The first bears a pile of crisp duck skin surrounded by a crown of pillowy white buns. In the past, I've eaten Peking duck with thin Chinese crepes. Now that I've had Hong Kong Asian Diner's version, those will never suffice.
Kuang will show you how to build your own sandwich of hoisin sauce, duck skin, and sliced green onion. She'll also watch carefully to ensure you apply each ingredient in the proper ratio.
The skin alone is worth talking about. With a thin layer of fat coating the inside of each piece, it makes for serious melt-in-your-mouth experience. But when combined with a touch of salty-sweet hoisin sauce and a pinch of green onions, it becomes a perfect balance of flavors and textures. And that's before the rest of the duck even hits your table.
When it does arrive, it will be a giant pile of meat encased in even more of that irresistible, crunchy skin. Crack into a piece and you'll reveal succulent duck that's flavored with an aromatic blend of spices.
If that duck dish doesn't fit the bill, there's always the deep-fried duck with taro, a Cantonese dish you don't see often on American Chinese restaurant menus. It doesn't sound or look like much at first, but one bite reveals tender steamed duck encased in a layer of creamy mashed taro root. The sweet nuttiness of the taro plays well with the meat, even more so when you add a touch of the sweet and sour sauce that comes on the side.
If you're a beef lover, go for the black pepper beef, with meat so tender it practically melts in your mouth. The peppery sauce is complemented by pieces of onions, red peppers, and garlic.
On the vegetable front, it's hard to go wrong whether you opt for something more familiar, like green beans with XO sauce, or something less common, like garlic snow pea leaves. In the case of the green beans you'll get a plate of snappy green beans dressed in a layer of umami-rich XO sauce. The snow pea leaves -- a classic but less common Chinese green than, say, bok choy -- are a lighter option. The leaves have a lightly sweet flavor and taste bright and fresh even when cooked with copious amounts of chopped garlic.
For starches, I'd recommend skipping the unremarkable beef chow fun in favor of an order of beef chow mein. The chow fun features flat rice noodles served stir-fried "wet." The result is a dish that's too oily for my taste and bland when compared to the egg noodle dish, chow mein. With red onion, mushrooms, bok choy, and juicy pieces of beef, it's a more rewarding route.
Even better yet is the dried scallop and egg white fried rice, a salty and soy sauce-less rice dish. The pieces of salt-cured scallops give a pungent briny taste to the side, as well as a strong punch of umami that's perfectly counterbalanced by the acidity of green onion and scallions.
After trying nearly two dozen dishes of Hong Kong Asian Diner's extensive menu, there are few I wouldn't recommend. Some, like the taro with pork hot pot, were unique but not instant favorites. Others, like the salt and pepper squid, were not as good as the versions I've found at other Valley Chinese restaurants.
The best advice I have is to let Choi guide your choices. She hasn't steered me wrong yet.