Chow Bella

Best Thing I Tasted All Week: Creative Buns and Booze

Green Chartreuse magic at The Clever Koi.
Green Chartreuse magic at The Clever Koi. Chris Malloy
Asian food is notoriously hard to pair with western drinks. Wine experts always suggest funky white wines like Riesling or Gewurztraminer for the task, the same wines they link with barbecue, spicy food, and other flavor combinations that fall through the European cracks. Why don’t people bust out sake and soju, or get creative?

At The Clever Koi, creativity is the name of the pan-Asian game.

This became clear the other day when I ordered all four buns on the menu at The Clever Koi's original Phoenix location. The buns came in a pair of those elaborate metallic taco holders.

The puffy rice-flour mini sandwiches got more interesting from right to left.

click to enlarge A stellar lineup of Chinese-style bao buns. - CHRIS MALLOY
A stellar lineup of Chinese-style bao buns.
Chris Malloy
Far right: pork belly, hoisin sauce, crumbled peanuts. Not pictured: a jolt courtesy of house-made Sriracha-style hot sauce. The rice-flour bun itself brought a layer of pillowy sponginess. The dark, musky flavors of hoisin and pork mingled once I tore into the filling.

Next in was the plainest and best of the four. Catfish fried in the ultralight tempura style flipped the story of what these kinds of Chinese bao buns are. Typically, the baked exterior is mild and airy, the true flavor springing from the filling rather than its puffy vehicle. But the delicately fried catfish was even airier than its bun, cooly jumbling standard bun logic.

Third came a soft shell crab bun. I have no idea where the kitchen gets these guys in October in the desert. The crab’s edible skeleton pops under your teeth and releases its sweet juices. Their flavor goes well with the faint sweetness of the bun itself. As with the catfish, hot sauce would ruin the balance.

(I put a few green drops on anyway. Can’t help myself when it comes to heat.)

Far left was the most unlikely and westernized bun: chicken and waffles. A puffy waffle stood in for the rice-flour shell. That limp waffle had zero Eggo-like shatter. It was all softness, sending the focus inward to fried chicken slicked with chile-spiked maple syrup.

Eating thoughtful food like this is both serious and fun at once. It’s a good enough experience alone. But The Clever Koi elevates its food with drinks, subverting the notion that Asian food is hard to pair with booze.

Cocktails at The Clever Koi have Asian ingredients like plum wine and yuzu. These exist more on the cocktail program's margins. At its center are spirits like bourbon and rye, Mezcal and rum. Co-owner Joshua James, who oversees the drink program, leans on quirky, far-flung ingredients like hibiscus bitters and a Czech elixir modeled after Fernet Branca.

James and his mixology team craft cocktails with their brand of pan-Asian food in mind. James considers the food’s general spiciness level, and fools like me who put hot sauce on everything. “We try for an abundance of citrus, spicy in our cocktails,” he says.

click to enlarge Garnishing that lemongrass swizzle with a cucumber accordion - CHRIS MALLOY
Garnishing that lemongrass swizzle with a cucumber accordion
Chris Malloy
A drink like the Lemongrass Swizzle, kicking with a lush blend of lime, yuzu, vodka, cucumber, and lemongrass syrup, brings easy-drinking tropical flavors. It’s light and fresh enough to respect the nuances of the fish buns (if you can refrain from slurping down the whole glass before the buns appear).

The Herby Hancock leads with anise-powered weirdness. It has a potent Green Chartreuse core rounded a little with thyme, syrup, and muddled limes. The drink can stand up to the heft of the waffle bun and its sweet-and-spicy fried chicken. Finally, a more outlandish refreshment called Up In Smoke, a hazy, peaty cocktail topped with oolong-tea-flavored foam, plays nicely off the similarly dark and smoky vibes of the pork belly.

These buns and the drinks that can raise them defy crusty notions of Asian food and drinks, and without being pedantic or trying too hard. And we're not even past The Clever Koi's starters.

Nonetheless, the buns were the coolest thing I tasted this week.

The Clever Koi, 4236 North Central Avenue #100; 602-222-3474
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.;  Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday
*There is also a Gilbert location.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy