Greater Phoenix has a surprising number of Vietnamese restaurants, and they aren’t evenly distributed. One lacuna runs from south Scottsdale to Cave Creek, where, for the size of this area, there could be far more options. This is one reason why 3 Regions Vietnamese Kitchen, opened in June 2018 in Cave Creek, has been packed. The other? The food.
Jenna Dao, chef at 3 Regions, moved to the U.S. from Hue, Vietnam, in 1996, when she was “12 or 13.” Though Hue is in central Vietnam, Dao cooks staples from the country’s north, south, and center. These are the three regions of 3 Regions. The tiny strip-mall restaurant may be Dao’s first, but she isn’t a novice.
“Growing up, my family did have a restaurant in Vietnam,” she says. “When I was little, I was always cooking and helping out in the kitchen.” In Cave Creek, where she and her husband moved in 2016, Dao prepares the same dishes she cooks for friends and family — the people who encouraged her to open a restaurant.
Among those who know her, Dao is especially praised for bun bo Hue. This soup is similar to pho, casting beef and rice noodles in central roles and coming with the same saucer of bean sprouts, basil, and jalapeños. But bun bo Hue’s rice noodles are thicker, chile oil plays an integral part, and the broth tastes different due largely to lemongrass. Dao leaves out the pig’s blood that coppers soups in her home city, where bun bo Hue is a specialty.
One evening in 3 Regions — which appears in an urban cluster on Tatum Road after a cinematic desert tableau, jammed into the same strip mall as a barber and a karate dojo — bun bo Hue came out all on its own.
You see waitstaff palming soup bowls with two hands. They have a gravity on the table, partly from the bowl’s width, partly from the eyes that track the porcelain half-spheres as they cross the small but charming burgundy dining room, where a bonhomie shaped by simplicity and nearness to your neighbor softly pulses. There is a family feel to 3 Regions, though its staff comes off as thin and rushed. (Dao’s husband, a pharmacist, may help the front of the house when it gets busy.)
Set on a black table, a bowl of bun bo Hue shows pinpoint drops of chile oil and hot beef grease sailing the gently teetering surface. Despite the visual portal into orange chile heaven or hell, the soup is hardly spicy. The broth tastes warmly of garlic and lemongrass. Ultimately, the chile comes in more like any old spice would: as a slight edit. Slices of beef brisket, shank, flank, and tendons dramatically fold over onto themselves when pinched up with noodles, the beef tender and rimmed with stripes of fat. Though the soup is low-voltage, it’s a good one.
So is Dao’s pho. Compared to others, hers goes light on the fish sauce and sweetness. Newly on the table, coiling steam, your nose catching spray from twirling noodles, the soup smells like cloves and star anise. These spices pervade the delicate broth, and so does grilled ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and coriander seeds, all weaving into the kind of enticing fugue that keeps you slurping.
One night, my server forgot the side add-ins for the pho. That same night, there were no chopsticks on tables. It’s not a huge deal because you can always ask for both, but these are the speed bumps you tend to jar into at 3 Regions, where minor hitches caused by under-staffing are redeemed by general kindness (and solid food).
A curry inspired by Panang has little heat, letting the tropical balm of coconut dominate. Shaking beef’s bits of rib-eye spend a little too long in hot butter and oil on the wok and toughen, but are saturated with dark juices that leak onto peppers and onions. Crispy tofu brings a thin sheaf that ruptures into a hot, creamy interior, the deep-fried cubes with a lusher and fattier texture than soybean matter should have. Haianese chicken (a Chinese dish) is skinless and retains its shape though sliced horizontally, giving simple pleasure when dunked in sweetened fish sauce.
The bulk of these dishes come from the “specialties” section of the menu. This is the zone of the menu to plumb (in addition to weekend specials, usually freeform dishes like steak and eggs and pho with lobster). Here, some of both Dao’s and Vietnam’s best are gathered.
Growing up in central Vietnam, Dao recalls, most cooks omitted coconut in making banh xeo, or savory crepes. In the more southern Vietnamese style, Dao opts to use coconut. Its aroma and tropicality give fresh dimension to the thin, turmeric-yellowed crepes, which are creased like gigantic hard-shell tacos and filled with folds of pork and juicy bean sprouts. Stuff them with the basil tilted limply on the side, and you could fill up on nada but banh xeo.
Another winner is Dao’s northern take on bun: rice noodles dipped in fish sauce. Simmered with sugar, garlic, and citrus, the dipping sauce seems to course with the saline, pungent charm of a good fish sauce, with any off-notes of angular funk rounded smoothly by the additions. That dreamy salinity mounts as you eat. It runs nicely with the plate’s pickled daikon and pork meatballs.
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Dao serves Hanoi-style bun because it’s what former president Obama ate when visiting Hanoi, delighting locals. After his meal, she says, this style of bun soared in popularity. Hers is a version that you would be happy to eat once every few weeks if you lived nearby, and if this were your new local Vietnamese restaurant.
Though Dao turns down the fermented funk in dishes like green mango salad, and though she ditches the staple ingredient shrimp paste across her whole menu, her restaurant has a warm mien and plenty of good food at solid prices. All said, 3 Regions is an enjoyable Vietnamese restaurant in an area that, for this kind of food and chef, has to be starving.
3 Regions Vietnamese Kitchen
28325 North Tatum Boulevard, Cave Creek
Hours: Wednesday to Monday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Crispy tofu $6.50
Bun cha $10.50
Banh xeo $10
Bun bo hue $10.50
Pho dac biet $10.95