Phoenix is a vibrant, diverse place to get a meal, from Mole to Jamaican oxtail curry. These three no-frills restaurants are some of the best spots anywhere for a taste of ethnic home cooking.
Soup Dumplings, Scallion Pancakes, and Dandan Noodles at Heng's, Mesa
Heng’s offers an extensive menu of traditional Chinese dishes (more than 100 at last count), including a pretty broad repertoire of Shanghainese and Sichuan specialties you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the Valley. The marquee dish at Heng’s is xiao long bao, the famous Shanghainese soup dumplings that remain a hard-to-find delicacy around the Valley. At Heng’s, you’ll find them advertised on the board as “homemade juicy steamed pork dumplings.” The pleated dumplings, roughly the size of golf balls, are delicately constructed and a little wobbly, seemingly designed to test your ability to manipulate small, slippery objects with chopsticks. You pick up each dumpling by its twisted knot, lay it on a soup spoon and then take a tiny bite, slurping out the porky, subtly seasoned broth inside. You will want to try the scallion pancake, too, at least once. Heng’s rendition of the classic Chinese street snack. The ultra-thin pancake is at once chewy, flaky, and very crisp. Beyond the appetizer menu, you’ll find such classic noodle dishes as dandan noodles, served in a mild chili-oil sauce laced with minced pork and a scattering of greens. It’s chock-full of salty, savory flavor, and more complex than most standard takeout versions of the Sichuan staple. Again, though, you’ll have to request it extra spicy if you want to really taste and feel the peppercorns at work.
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Jerk Chicken and Oxtail Curry at Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine, Chandler
Though it’s modest in size, its brick-and-mortar space radiates the sort of comfort and coziness you might associate with a neighborhood coffeehouse. It’s spare but well-appointed, with black-and-white checkerboard floors; a colorful Jamaican flag-inspired color scheme; and a couple of oversize, tufted booths, plus a scattering of tables and chairs. Bob Marley tunes vibrate over the speakers, and the laidback ambiance is complemented by the friendly presence of owner Karen Francis and her team, who seem to be on a first-name basis with many of their regulars. Oxtails, bathed in a lightly sweet, herb-scented, gravy-like stew, are similarly rich and compelling. This is the kind of comfort food traditionally reserved for rainy days, but in sunny metro Phoenix, it’s just as delicious on plain old sunny afternoons. Paired with a tender, starchy side of rice and peas, the beefy, rich oxtails are one of the most flavorful and satisfying offerings at Hot Pot. There’s jerk chicken, of course, Jamaica’s famously time-intensive barbecue chicken. The Hot Pot version features a full quarter of meat, wrapped deliciously in the restaurant’s darkly ruddy homemade sauce. The jerk chicken sauce is aromatic, a little smoky, with just a little bite. It’s too good not to try at least once. Pair it with a side of tender fried plantains — the sweetness complements the spicy chicken beautifully.
Puebla-Style Mexican at La Poblanita Mexican Grill, Phoenix
This Puebla-style cemita is arguably the king of the Mexican sandwiches — the lactic tang of the Oaxacan cheese, melded with the saltiness of the ham and Milanesa, is delicious and unforgettable. And it is still kind of a rare food find around metro Phoenix. The version at La Poblanita is layered with pounded-thin sheets of fried steak, slices of ham, and avocado, and topped with ribbons of Oaxacan cheese. The sandwich is light on dressing and condiments — just a smear of palate-tickling chipotle salsa on one half of its sesame-seeded cemita bun, a drizzle of olive oil on the other, and a couple leaves of papalo, a seasonal Mexican herb with a distinctly floral kick, tucked into the heart of the sandwich. Cemitas aside, the thing to order at La Poblanita is the mole poblano, which is darkly ruddy and a little thick. It's dappled with sesame seeds and draped over a succulent chicken thigh, but your attention will be on the mole, which hints at nuts, garlic, and chocolate. Like most well-made moles, this one represents a delicate and skillful balance of flavors. No single ingredient asserts itself too boldly. It's bitter, spicy, and sweet, all at once, the kind of richly sophisticated dish that has the power to both confuse and dazzle your palate. If you appreciate a good mole, this one is not to be missed.