The countdown to Best of Phoenix is on. Mark your calendar: This year's issue will be on newsstands September 26. What better way to warm up than by asking some local "experts" to list their own personal bests? This week Helen Yung of the artisan ice cream shop Sweet Republic shares her favorite Chinese restaurants in metro Phoenix. By Helen Yung
Eating has always been a family affair. I grew up in Hong Kong sitting down at the dining table at home every weekday night at 7pm with my sister and parents and on Sundays with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Every meal consisted of at least a long-boiled soup, rice, stir-fried dish and maybe something steamed, braised or fried.
As I grow older, I increasingly crave Chinese food, in particular Cantonese -- the kind of food I grew up with in Hong Kong. Cantonese food is all about highlighting the freshness of ingredients with quick high-heat wok cooking and minimal sauces. And the best way to eat it is to order up a storm and share the spread with a big group of friends. So with that bias in mind, here's my list of favorite Chinese restaurants in Phoenix.
Asian Café Express (ACE) ACE proves that you CAN have good, fast and cheap, as long as you're willing to overlook the no frills décor. Chef Michael Leung has created a huge menu that offers something for everybody and it works. ACE has the most diverse clientele I've seen at any restaurant from ethnicity, to age, to social class. I love that he's included dishes from old-school diners in Hong Kong that you rarely find at Chinese restaurants here - East-meets-West dishes that came to be when Hong Kong was a British colony. My favorite is the Baked Pork Chop Rice with Tomato Sauce (two deep-fried breaded pork chops on authentic egg fried rice (no soy sauce here), covered with a tomato onion sauce and baked for 30 min). Another reason to love ACE is that you can bring live seafood from Mekong Supermarket across the street and have them cook it any way you like for a small fee.
Nee House As with most Chinese restaurants in the Valley especially one located in North Phoenix, the menu is filled with Americanized dishes. However there are a few authentic Cantonese dishes that I have to order every time I'm here: egg white and crab fried rice, wok-fried snow pea leaves, fried silken tofu with a dried scallop sauce and either a live lobster and/or fish from the tanks. These are more "upscale" dishes that require more skill. Nee House's owner/chef is probably one of the most technically skilled Chinese chefs in town. His fried rice has perfectly al dente kernels of individual rice filled with the "breath of the wok" that requires perfect control of heat and speed. It always amazes me how he manages to fry delicate silken tofu in a crispy tempura-like batter and serve it with a clear sauce infused with flavorful dried scallops. Chef also steams fish from his pristine tanks beautifully and does justice to the lobsters and crabs.
Chou's Kitchen Chou's serves authentic Northeastern Chinese food that you can't find anywhere else in the Valley. Northern Chinese food differs from (Southern) Cantonese food in that it uses a lot more flour (dumplings, breads and noodles), more spices and more meat, mostly pork and sometimes lamb. I love that the owners are always wrapping dumplings behind the glass window but still manage to greet customers warmly without skipping a beat. Their dumplings are delicious - from boiled, steamed to panfried. But I'm particularly excited about the recent addition of Xiao Long Bao to the menu. The wrapper is a tad on the thick side but it means they can pack in more sweet porky broth that bursts in your mouth.
Great Wall Great Wall is THE place in Phoenix for dimsum from the quality of their ingredients to the skill behind each of their many offerings. The selection, as with all dimsum joints, is much better on weekends than weekdays. Sundays tend to be have crazy waits so I usually prefer to go on Saturdays. Har gow or shrimp dumpling is the standard by which you compare dimsum restaurants. Great Wall uses good quality shrimp and the wrapper has a soft silky consistency. Other must order dimsum include siu mai (pork "open-faced" dumplings), spare ribs, chicken feet, panfried radish cakes, fried wontons, fried taro dumplings and sesame balls filled with lotus paste. Great Wall also has a fantastic selection of live seafood in their tanks. I've had everything from spot prawns to Alaskan king crab cooked expertly here.
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Lucky's King Wah The first time I walked into Lucky's, I was struck by all the specials posted in Chinese covering most of the walls. I'm impressed that they don't try to cater to American tastes. They are squarely targeting customers, who know and appreciate authentic Chinese food, and the chef is not afraid to offer uncommon dishes like tender delicious braised pig trotters. Chef makes a great crispy chicken by ladling hot oil over the skin until golden. I also like his old-fashioned char siu (roast pork) which is made without the usual red coloring and has a caramelized exterior - almost like meat candy at the ends. Lucky's is also my mom's favorite Chinese restaurant in Phoenix. She was particularly impressed by chef's perfect execution of snow pea leaves and kai lan (Chinese broccoli), cooking both to a perfect crisp while exhibiting great restraint in his use of salt and oil.