When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Asian Fusion Cafe
Location: 725 South Rural Road, Tempe
Open: More than a month
Eats: Hong Kong-style diner
It's a good time to be an Asian food lover in Tempe. We've already told you that Chandler's well-loved northwestern Chinese-style restaurant, Chou's Kitchen, will open a second location in Tempe later this summer, and now, we're here to tell you about Asian Fusion Cafe, Tempe's first Hong Kong-style diner.
Valley residents may already be familiar with the concept of a cha chan teng, or "tea restaurant," thanks to Mesa's Asian Cafe Express. But for those who have never made the trip to that popular Chinese eatery, know that the Hong Kong-style diner holds a dear place in the hearts of those who have lived or eaten extensively in that city. These fast, cheap restaurants serve a blend of Cantonese and Western dishes, which can be somewhat surprising to those who haven't dined in this type of restaurant before. You'll find traditional Cantonese rice and noodle dishes next to interpretations of Western classics, including spaghetti with meat sauce and rice or a club sandwich served with a side of fries.
Asian Fusion Cafe, which opened quietly in the former home of the short-lived Hazelrock Cafe earlier this summer, offers all of that plus a selection of Szechwan dishes. And while not everything on the more than 100-dish-long menu is worth a try, this is definitely a new destination for a few hard-to-find items.
But you can't start your meal at a tea restaurant without some tea, and at Asian Fusion Cafe, "tea" doesn't just mean some leaves steeped in water. Here you can order a Hong Kong-style milk tea, somewhat similar to Thai tea — a cup of strong black tea sweetened with a pour of condensed milk. Or for an afternoon pick-me-up, there's a milk tea and coffee mix, which is the same as the milk tea but with some coffee added.
From there, you may want to explore the restaurant's selection of appetizers, and while the scallion pancakes ($4.99) are fine there are definitely better, moister versions elsewhere in town. The beef pancake roll ($5.99) is better, made with the same scallion pancakes but less dry, thanks to a filling of flavorful hunks of beef.
You could also dig right into some of entrees, for example the Hainanese chicken rice ($7.99). Hailing from the island of Hainan, this dish includes chicken, rice, and a trio of condiments including a chili and garlic sauce, ginger sauce, and a dark soy sauce. The poached chicken is straightforward enough, so it's the rice, which gets cooked in the rich, skimmed-off chicken stock, that steals the show. The silky chicken meat can be punched up with as much of any of the side sauces as you please and enjoyed with a mouthful of the fat-soaked rice.
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For something authentic to the Hong Kong-style cafe experience, the baked pork chop with cheese and rice ($7.99) is an even better choice. This dish, decadent and heavy, combines rice — usually fried but in this case white — plus a layer of breaded and fried pork chops under a blanket of sweet, slightly acidic tomato sauce and melted orange cheese. The fried, cheesy, meaty bites are impossible not to like and are probably unlike what you're used to finding at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
The typical Hong Kong-style cafe, however, isn't best known for wok-fried fare, which is why you may want to skip Asian Fusion Cafe's beef chow fun ($9.99). On our visit, the plate of fat rice noodles, vegetables, and meat tasted more like wok than anything else — besides maybe a hint of cooking oil. On the upside, the Szechwan dish we tried, though not usually found at this type of restaurant, fared well. The chung qi-style spicy chicken ($12.99) featured pieces of bone-in deep fried chicken tossed in a spicy sauce and then buried in deadly-looking red peppers.
Should that dish prove too much for sensitive palates to handle, you can cool things down with one of the restaurant's dessert soups. These include options such as black sesame soup and red bean and walnut soup, though we opted for the Thai black glutinous rice with mango in vanilla sauce. The bowl of vanilla sauce — think melted vanilla ice cream, but less creamy — came topped with hunks of fresh mango, strawberries, and a few spoonfuls of black rice to make for a perfect summertime treat or a meal ending that could never leave you feeling too heavy.
With dozens of dishes in each menu section, there's still plenty more to explore on the Asian Fusion Cafe menu. But with one visit, we can say for sure that whether you're stopping in for tea or looking for your next dining adventure, this spot can deliver what you're looking for.