Cafe Reviews

Asia Vu

Silver Dragon, 8946 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 674-0151. Hours: Sunday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.

Silver Dragon's employees have their marching orders: Gweilos to the right!
That's where all the non-Chinese "foreigners" are herded once they come through the door. In that room, they're seated in comfy vinyl booths. The tables are set with cutlery. The waiter hands them an English-language menu, featuring the usual assortment of mainstream Chinese snoozers: egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, almond chicken, shrimp with lobster sauce. The soothing strains of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" are piped in to aid Occidental digestion.

All in all, it's the kind of nonthreatening ethnic experience that you'd expect if you lived in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. It's aimed strictly at the Valley's white-bread-and-Jell-O crowd.

But this is a cover. Silver Dragon is not what it appears to be. How can real Chinese-food aficionados penetrate its mysteries? No, you don't have to knock three times and whisper low. You don't need to learn secret passwords or flash a sign.

Your best bet is to come here with a group of six or eight people. Demand a family-size round table in the dining area off to the left, where the tables are set with chopsticks and bowls, and nearly all the other patrons are of Asian descent. And ask for the Chinese-language menu (it has brief English translations of the dishes) that the host otherwise keeps, in a mistaken sense of culinary duty, out of Western hands.

Then get ready for some of the best Hong Kong-style food in town. This is the kind of Chinese food you'd find on Grant Street in San Francisco or Mott Street in New York.

Old-timers may recall that Silver Dragon used to do business in Scottsdale, on Thomas Road. About two years ago, the proprietor sold the place (the building now houses an English pub) and, I hear, tried to make a go of it in Southern California. That didn't work out. When he moved back, he wisely decided to resume operations on the more ethnic-restaurant-friendly west side.

In the few months he's been there, word of the kitchen's prowess seems to have gotten around. On one recent Saturday night, every big table was occupied. Waiters were bustling, chopsticks were flashing, and everyone was having a good time.

We certainly were. And why not? The food is extraordinarily tasty and priced to sell. Except for the whole duck ($12) and whole chicken ($10), most everything on the menu goes for less than eight bucks. The chef doesn't stint on the portions, either.

When the weather cools off in six months, I plan to return with nine close friends and share the shark fin soup for 10. (It's $70, and you need to order it in advance.) Right now, however, I'd recommend skipping the soups and heading straight for the glorious main dishes.

The English translations don't do the fare justice. "Crispy Hong Kong Style Chicken (Whole)," for instance, doesn't begin to describe this exceptional poultry. A plump bird gets steamed, then flash-fried and hacked into bite-size pieces. The meat is tender and juicy, the skin crisp and crunchy: This is what yin and yang are all about. Dip the chicken into the little bowl of seasoned salt for an extra flavor boost.

"Salt and Pepper Squid" also doesn't convey just how intriguing this platter is. It's a huge plateful of battered, fried calamari--not the little rings that usually appear as appetizer munchies, but thick, tender strips of calamari steak, brightened with breathtaking amounts of salt and pepper. It delivers a vibrant combination of textures and flavors.

Put "Crispy Shrimp With Glazed Walnuts" on your don't-miss list. Big, quick-fried shrimp (not battered) are lightly coated with an oddly compelling mayonnaise-type sauce and teamed with candied walnuts. This dish is guaranteed to set off dueling chopsticks at your table.

Hot pot dishes--prepared in covered clay vessels--are an important part of Cantonese cooking. The two we sampled show just how seriously Silver Dragon takes them. "Spicy Chinese Eggplant" is masterful. The eggplant is perfectly cooked--not oily, and not reduced to a mushy pulp. It's punched up with lots of five-spice and ginger. For an eggplant fanatic like myself, it's ecstasy. And good luck trying to find the remarkable hot pot of shrimp, squid and noodles, simmered in a light coconut curry sauce, at your "one from column A, one from column B" neighborhood Chinese restaurant.

Noodles are another key element of Hong Kong cuisine. Silver Dragon's models are as good as they get. Ask for the off-the-menu cha siu chow mein, barbecued pork tossed Hong Kong-style in crispy, pan-fried noodles, accompanied by gai-lan, Chinese broccoli. Beef chow fun, fashioned from starchy rice noodle, is first-rate. Get it dry, or with just a little bit of sauce. Silver Dragon also whips up thick Shanghai-style noodles, which have their own appealing taste and texture.

You usually won't find me perusing the "Vegetable" section of a Chinese menu. But not too many "Vegetable" sections offer "Buddhist Style rolls." They're terrific: bean curd wrap, stuffed with mixed veggies, then deep-fried to a puff. They're even better dunked in the soy dipping sauce. Spicy string beans also deliver vegetarian delight, crisply sauteed and embellished with mushrooms.

Filleted sole enlivened with ginger and onion is another rewarding option. So are the moist scallops, paired with green beans and hot chiles. And if someone in your group must have beef, the "Beef With Our House Sate Sauce" provides basic beefy pleasure.

Even if you're sitting in the "Chinese" section of Silver Dragon, ordering off the Chinese menu and eating with chopsticks, the staff distinguishes between natives and gweilos at meal's end. Asians get cut-up oranges. We got fortune cookies.

It's a distinction I can live with. Silver Dragon is a gem.

Kaishu, 7333 East Indian Plaza, Scottsdale, 941-4224. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday; Dinner, Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

At the rate they're opening, it shouldn't be too long before the Valley has more Japanese restaurants than Yokohama. But as long as they're as good as Kaishu, you won't hear me complaining.

Unlike many of its competitors, this seven-month-old place isn't trying to make a trendoid impression. There are no beautiful people here taking calls on their cell phones at the sushi bar; the guys aren't wearing ponytails; and ladies aren't making a fashion statement or air-kissing their friends.

Kaishu is actually trying to make a culinary statement. And the message is coming in loud and clear.

Tables are set with folded black cloth napkins topped with a single rose petal. It's a nice touch. So was the freebie sake the proprietor brought over--"Welcome to Kaishu"--when he learned it was our first visit.

Kaishu is not the place to come for an elaborate Japanese dinner. There's no teppanyaki cooking, where the chef dices, slices and grills before your eyes. Nor will you find shabu-shabu, sukiyaki or nabemono hot pots on the menu. Main-dish options are limited: pork and chicken katsu, tempura and teriyaki steak, chicken and salmon.

Kaishu puts its heart into nibbles--appetizers and sushi. I could nibble all night.

Start off with green mussels, a half-dozen bivalves baked with a touch of cheese, mayo and wasabi. Broiled sea bass is another offbeat success, foil-wrapped fish steamed up with garlic butter and teamed with shiitake mushrooms.

Less unusual, but no less effective, are the gyoza, six crunchy, pork-filled dumplings. Cha shu, the Japanese version of Chinese roast pork, features thin slices of roasted pork loin. Shumai also get your appetite juices flowing. They're bite-size crab dumplings, served with a pungent hot mustard sauce.

For some reason, the art of tempura has never flourished in Arizona. Too many Valley Japanese restaurants, it seems, rely on the same recipe that sports bars use to make onion rings and fried shrimp.

Fortunately, Kaishu's kitchen knows what it's doing. The large tempura appetizer plate holds shrimp, broccoli, zucchini, sweet potato, green pepper and onion, all freshly fried up in a delicate, grease-free batter. You can do a lot worse for $5.95 in this town.

If you're an octopus fan--and who isn't?--Kaishu prepares the best seasoned octopus salad in the Sonoran desert. The octopus is wonderfully tender, and it's tastily accompanied by sprouts, smelt roe and slivers of cucumber and chile.

Kaishu's sushi master puts together several first-rate creations featuring cooked fish. The Kaishu Volcano artistically arranges white fish, shrimp, clam and smelt roe, served with a lip-smacking dipping sauce. The spider roll, meanwhile, is filled to bursting with deep-fried soft-shell crab.

I asked about the December 29th roll. "Is that a holiday or special day?" I inquired. "No," the waitress said, laughing, "it's the day the chef invented it." Well, the mix of yellowtail, smelt roe, scallion and surimi, quick-fried to a crunch, is worth celebrating.

The Las Vegas roll won't impress anyone with its home-country authenticity. The combination of cream cheese, salmon, scallion and smelt roe sounds like it belongs on a bagel. But it delivers genuine, deep-fried sushi satisfaction.

Don't overlook the more traditional sushi items. If professional duty hadn't obliged me to make my way through the menu, I would have been happy just to fill up on binnaga, luscious strips of albacore tuna. But unagi, spicy yellowtail hand roll, sweet shrimp, flying fish roe and a vegetarian roll filled with marinated gourd roots helped ease my disappointment.

Though Kaishu's main-dish fare isn't too terribly interesting, the quality is there. Pork katsu has just the right crunch, and it comes with dill-flecked potatoes, carrots, noodles and rice, as well as miso soup and salad; $10.50 doesn't often go this far in this part of Scottsdale. Pan-fried udon noodle is disguised as an appetizer, but the platter is more an entree. You get a mound of noodles heaped with strips of chicken breast, studded with sesame seeds and moistened in a rich, smoky sauce.

Instead of trying to cash in on a fashionable Scottsdale address, Kaishu has clearly worked hard getting its kitchen act together. That's what I call getting your priorities straight.

Silver Dragon:
Beef chow fun
Salt and pepper squid
Seafood noodle hot pot
Shrimp and walnuts

Seasoned octopus salad
Green mussels
December 29th roll

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Howard Seftel