Cafe Reviews

Consumer Rice Index

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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.

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Howard Seftel