Ethnic-food fans generally fall into two broad categories. There are the squeamish folks for whom a little authenticity goes a long way. On those rare occasions when they seek an encounter with the genuine home-country fare of faraway peoples, it's usually through the Food Channel.
At the other end of the spectrum are the ethnic-restaurant anthropologists. These culinary specialists make a fetish of knowing just how natives all over the globe prepare dinner. They'll tell you where Mongols graze their prized yak, how Laplanders marinate reindeer, and what seasonings New Guinea tribesmen like to sprinkle on neighboring villagers.
The Valley caters to both tastes. If the sight of chopsticks, chicken feet and foreign-born diners makes you feel anxious, the unthreatening Chinese experience at the new Jade Palace will put you at ease. If, however, you prefer dining in storefront ethnic shacks, with struggling air conditioning, homesick natives and budget-priced daily specials posted on the wall, the Vietnamese experience at Khai Hoan should win you over.
Jade Palace is a Scottsdale Chinese restaurant. What does that mean? It means the Asian staff speaks perfect English. It means the tables are covered with crisp white linen and lined with forks, spoons and knives. (Ask for chopsticks, and your server will blink with disbelief.) It means soothing Chopin waltzes are gently piped in, to make you feel as if you're dining in a salon. It means you aren't likely to find any customers here who hail from the mysterious East, unless you mean folks who live in the new subdivisions sprouting east of Pima Road. You will, however, run into lots of authentic Scottsdalians: women who pour on perfume with a bucket, accompanied by loud husbands who love the sound of their own voices.
It means, too, the place is very pretty, in a prosperously suburban way. Tiered dining areas inject a note of elegance. Cactus arrangements dot the room. And there are just enough Chinese touches--vases, paintings, silk flowers--to remind you that you're in a Chinese restaurant.
Depending on your point of view, Jade Palace's fare is either breathtakingly boring or reassuringly familiar. If you're the type of Chinese-food fan who likes to roam Grant Street in San Francisco or Mott Street in New York prowling for native delicacies, a visit here makes no sense. If, on the other hand, you can't imagine a Chinese meal without those two little bowls of hot mustard and duck sauce, this place will remove your trepidation.
My concern about Jade Palace, however, isn't about its Chinese-food concept. After all, sometimes even the most ardent seekers of exotic Asian fare long for the kind of Chinese dishes that Mom used to take out. It's the execution that troubles me. The kitchen doesn't seem to realize that unthreatening fare doesn't have to mean dull.
That's especially true of the appetizers, which range from awful to blah, not a range most of us feel at home on. Barbecued pork, doused in an innocuous sauce devoid of soy, ginger or garlic energy, has no ethnic character whatsoever. Fried shrimp, fried won tons and greasy egg rolls furnish your daily recommended allowance of oil, but that's about the extent of their appeal. Paper-wrapped chicken is loaded with salt, and the skewered beef looks (and tastes) distressingly like processed gyro meat. The chewy spare ribs won't make any highlight reels, either.
Don't bother with the lackluster soups, which could have come from a can. The two we sampled arrived lukewarm. Both the spinach with bean curd and won-ton models relied on watery broths that seemed to be seasoned with nothing more potent than air. And the kitchen is much too frugal about stocking them with solids.
Occasionally, Jade Palace's main dishes show flashes of talent. Seafood in a Love Nest is a compelling mix of scallops, shrimp and real crab nestled in a crispy taro-root shell, surrounded by broccoli, snow peas and straw mushrooms.
Noodle dishes are also right on target. Singapore-style rice noodles feature a hearty mound of thin vermicelli studded with shrimp, chicken and pork, all bathed in a tangy, spicy, curry-tinged sauce. Chow fun, thick rice noodles, are also well-fashioned, armed with a real Chinatown flavor.
Why those lively ethnic elements disappear from most everything else is a mystery I can't solve. Steak Kew, for example, brings lots of tender filet mignon and veggies. But it doesn't offer a single clue as to its Chinese origins. Yes, I know the people who are drawn to Jade Palace aren't interested in far-out native dishes. But surely they're not so skittish that they want every ethnic trace removed altogether?
Hot braised scallops also suffer from timidity. Why does the chef feel he needs to bread fresh scallops? It certainly doesn't make them taste better. Nor will the "hot" ginger sauce they're coated with make anyone break out in a sweat. The same gentility marks General Tso's chicken, heavily battered poultry chunks which would have benefited from contact with the spice rack.
I could forgive Jade Palace for not using Chinese long beans in its dry sauteed string beans. No doubt management fears this unfamiliar vegetable might scare some of the patrons. But there's no reason the regular green beans the kitchen used couldn't have been touched up with something a little more alluring than sodium.
However, I can't forgive the Four Seasons, a "specialty" that brings together, in misalliance, fatty pork, deep-fried chicken, nondescript shrimp and two shards of lobster. (The menu promises "chunks of live Maine lobster meat and jumbo shrimp.")
Jade Palace's business plan makes sense: Find an affluent neighborhood and serve not-too-Chinese comfort food in a good-looking setting. I just wish it'd done a better job putting the food part of the equation into practice.
Khai Hoan, 1537 East Apache, Tempe, 829-7118. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Tucked away in the far corner of a modest Tempe shopping strip, Khai Hoan looks like it came directly from Central Casting, small-ethnic-restaurant division. Inside, rickety fans spin uneasily overhead, trying to rouse a cooling breeze. Your fellow diners are almost all Vietnamese, here to get some home cooking. A multigenerational family staff does the cooking and serving. Vietnamese newspapers are strewn across a table, and untranslated dinner specials are taped to the walls. The television on the counter is always turned on. The proprietors like to watch evening reruns of M*A*S*H.
Khai Hoan has two things going for it. Most of the fare is fresh, clean, light and flavorful, just the way Vietnamese dishes ought to taste. It's also, in the best ethnic-shack tradition, astonishingly cheap. Almost everything on the menu is priced less than four bucks.
Make sure you start your meal with goi cuon, the Vietnamese version of egg rolls. Khai Hoan's model is awesome: shrimp, pork, Vietnamese ham, greenery and noodles tightly wrapped in rice paper. Pick up the roll and plunk it in the peanut dipping sauce for an additional flavor boost. At $2.25 a pair, this hefty appetizer gives you lots of bang for your buck.
Soups aren't quite as compelling, especially compared with the vigorously seasoned broths you find at competitors like Pho Bang and Spring. Hu tieu tom cua thit (#15 to you and me) surely could have been more hard-hitting. Noodles, sprouts and a few desultory pieces of shrimp, crab and pork simply don't do much to punch up the liquid they're floating in. Neither do the shrimp, pork and egg noodles that swim in mi tom thit (#20), another lackluster effort. Of course, for the cognoscenti, there's always pho, Vietnamese meals-in-a-bowl which employ parts of the cow that never make it into a Campbell's soup can.
Bun cha gio thit nuong (#37) will give you a good idea just how subtly seductive Vietnamese food can be. Wonderful charbroiled strips of pork and crunchy bits of egg roll are tossed over rice vermicelli. Alongside is a mound of greenery and raw veggies--lettuce, mint, turnip, carrot and cucumber. #53, banh hoi chao tom thit nuong, is similar, except for the presence of grilled shrimp paste, a form of pressed shrimp. Mix and match noodles, meat, greenery and veggies, then dunk everything into nuoc nam, the native condiment. It's a salty, pungent fish sauce that accompanies almost every Vietnamese dish. Sure, it's an acquired taste, but it's one that's quickly acquired.
If texture is as important to you as flavor, do your mouth a favor and order #29, banh uot thit nuong. It's a marvelous sensory experience: a platter of thick, starchy rice noodles on a bed of crunchy bean sprouts, overlaid with grilled pork.
The English menu translation can't do justice to #63, com tam bi cha bo nuong: "Shredded pork, poached egg, charbroiled beef with broken rice with sauce." The shredded pork is clear enough, but the poached egg is more like an Asian quiche, studded with meat and veggies. And the charbroiled beef turned out to be gyro meat. Perhaps it wandered in from Haji Baba, Khai Hoan's shopping-strip neighbor.
If you're looking for something a bit less ethnically intense, lemongrass chicken (#75) is superb. Crisp, crunchy morsels of battered chicken, lined with the zesty fragrances of lemongrass and chile, jumped right out of the fryer onto our plate. The egg-noodle dishes also deliver uncomplicated pleasure. #90, which features crispy egg noodles, shrimp and beef, is especially effective. At the bottom end of the ethnic flavor scale is #78, a bland, Chinese-style shrimp-and-broccoli dish that the kitchen doesn't seem to have its heart in.
Vietnamese beverages are some of the world's most interesting thirst quenchers. Not everyone will want to slurp down pureed mung bean with tapioca and coconut milk, or quaff a liquid blend of dried longan, seaweed and red plum. But the fresh lemonade is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. And the hot, filtered French coffee, dripped tableside over sweetened condensed milk, delivers a mind-altering, caffeine-sugar high so intense it could drive illegal drugs off the market.
On the one hand, Khai Hoan is nothing more than a cheap, reliable, storefront ethnic restaurant. On the other hand, cheap, reliable, storefront ethnic restaurants help make life in the Valley worth living.
Singapore rice noodles
Seafood in a Love Nest
Banh uot thit nuong (#29)
Com tam bi cha bo nuong (#63)
Lemongrass chicken (#75)
Coffee and condensed milk