Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Old Town Taste Brings the Fresh Heat

Old Town Taste's Chongqing-style spicy chicken.
Old Town Taste's Chongqing-style spicy chicken. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Not all the dishes at Old Town Taste are Sichuan, and not all Sichuan dishes are spicy, but this new Tempe gem sure brings some heat. Old Town Taste gives lessons on capsaicin, on the hard and soft beauty of the chile pepper, and lessons come free with each bite.

Consider, for starters, simple braised eggplant. No grabbing menu description. Not much to pry your heart and mind from ordering hotpot, delivered by waitstaff rocking oven mitts. But order this plate, and you’ll soon receive watercolor-purple strips of eggplant close to flawless. Cloud-soft, the vegetable’s natural fattiness makes full, lush amethyst bites melt away in garlicky plumes of umami and sweetness, all tempered by a smooth, steady chile heat. Holy shit, you might giddily think. Where did that come from?

There are surprises at Old Town Taste, most of them pleasant. The restaurant first welcomed diners in early spring of this year. Xiohan Xu and Zuhao Wang are its owners, Qifu Chen and Jie Yu its chefs. Most of the food is Sichuan, but some hails from gastronomic traditions beyond the storied midwestern Chinese province — home of one of the most renowned Chinese regional cuisines, one potently linked with two primary dimensions of spice: red chile peppers (hot) and Sichuan peppers (hot, tingling, and hallucinatory).

“In America, the perception of Chinese food is incomplete,” Wang says. “It may be a fast food in their minds.”

click to enlarge The twice-cooked pork is another staple on the menu. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
The twice-cooked pork is another staple on the menu.
Jackie Mercandetti
He notes that his team is looking to change people’s minds, not alter or edit their own food to satisfy external expectations. In a capacious room where parties at jade chairs and banquettes generously spaced apart, mind-changing plates slashed with chiles are handed out from the tiny window to the kitchen.

One plate zipping out more often than most: chicken and fish in the Chongqing style. This house specialty — one that the waitstaff are quick to recommend — showcases the two spice sources that are twin pillars of Sichuan cookery.

Less than 10 minutes after ordering, an oversized plate comes heaped with chicken, looking like a squat volcano. But no — look again. This is just as much a pile of chiles. Scarlet pepper bits blistered by heat form the bulk, if not in mass in spirit. They are everywhere, and in their ranks hide the even more potent, crunchy Sichuan peppers — their husks like tiny acorn caps.

A crisp but airy sheath coats each piece. All moisture is wicked away from the outside, so thin and lacy and light in its crunch. Bites burst with chile heat and garlic chips stir-fried until slightly bitter, and a blast of salt kicks you in your front teeth. The heat is equally aggressive, only not too hot, and balances as the peculiar, tangy, almost lemony spell of the Sichuan pepper works its magic, slightly recalibrating your taste buds and mind.

The fish version differs from the chicken. Broad sails warped and curled on their edges replace morsels. Both are great versions, the kind of Chinese dish that you would be happy to eat in a metro area nationally known for its Chinese food. In the end, though, the salt on the dishes is too sharp, making this signature a slightly flawed beauty.

A few other dishes are just as good or better.

The eggplant — oh, yes.

And right up there, soupy and jiggly: the mapo tofu. A shallow dish comes jammed with soft tofu. The wobbly pieces give way to a fresh, vegetal spirit. Drifts of crushed chile sopping with chile-infused oil give this tofu its customary rich, mouth-coating high heat, hotter than even the chicken. But a husky garlic spirit pervades the oil as well, and together they imbue the soft skin of the tofu, your mouth, your soul.

Twice-cooked pork, another Sichuan staple, is an additional gem. Thin strips of pork belly with glaciers of white fat melt pleasantly. They’d be good on their own, but broad slashes of leeks saturated with pork fat add a deft allium caress. The heat is low and steady, washing along the margins rather than in a dominant role.

click to enlarge Slide into a booth at Old Town Taste in Tempe. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Slide into a booth at Old Town Taste in Tempe.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Though Old Town Taste plates some great food, it isn’t a perfect restaurant.

On both of my visits, the menu listed a number of dishes that weren’t actually on the menu anymore. Bitter melon. Cucumber salad. Cold tripe. Chalk this glitch up to early turbulence. We hope it gets fixed.

Second, drink options could be better. There’s zero booze, and that’s fine, but Old Town Taste should do better than sad tea bags.

Third, noodles aren’t great. Sleepy and blunt (Old Town Mien in particular), weighed down by oil, won’t bring much beyond what you can get from your local ho-hum, Chinese-American takeout joint. This is a major bummer, but there are plenty of other options.

All said, Old Town Taste is a welcome addition to the Valley.

It’s nice to enjoy bowls of slab-cut congealed blood, clean and springy, rye-colored and liver-like from so much iron. It’s nice to order fried dumplings with a touch of chile-spiked bean paste and a squirt of black vinegar, a first step on the meal’s stairway. And it’s nice to get a fresh chile lesson, to experience not only the ma la interplay of Sichuan pepper and actual chiles, but varied examples of how heat can jazz up a dish.

click to enlarge The interior of Old Town Taste is covered in murals. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The interior of Old Town Taste is covered in murals.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Maybe heat hard, flat, and upfront (blood curd soup).

Maybe heat mellow and balanced, more like black pepper’s low sizzle (twice-cooked pork).

Maybe heat beautiful and warping, burning like a green driftwood fire in the wind (Chongqing chicken and fish).

Or maybe full-throated but balanced (mapo tofu) — homey and old fashioned, soulful enough to keep your eyes peeled, your mind wide, and your mouth open.

Old Town Taste
1845 East Broadway Road, #123, Tempe
480-702-7101
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 pm, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday; closed Monday.

Braised eggplant $10
Mapo tofu $10
Chongqing-style spicy chicken $14
Twice-cooked pork $12
Szechuan-style blood curd $17
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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