Heng’s Kitchen is a small counter-service Chinese restaurant tucked into a rather obscure corner of the food court at Mekong Plaza in Mesa. It might be the least flashy restaurant at Mekong, situated right by the restrooms, and far removed from the glittering chandeliers and flat-screen TVs of the plaza’s more decorous sit-down restaurants.
However, don’t judge this tiny food stall by its meager square footage and lack of ambiance. Heng’s offers an extensive menu of traditional Chinese dishes (more than 100 at last count), including a pretty broad repertoire of Shanghainese and Sichuan specialties you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the Valley.
The marquee dish at Heng’s is xiao long bao, the famous Shanghainese soup dumplings that remain a hard-to-find delicacy around the Valley. At Heng’s, you’ll find them advertised on the board as “homemade juicy steamed pork dumplings.”
The pleated dumplings, roughly the size of golf balls, are delicately constructed and a little wobbly, seemingly designed to test your ability to manipulate small, slippery objects with chopsticks. You pick up each dumpling by its twisted knot, lay it on a soup spoon and then take a tiny bite, slurping out the porky, subtly seasoned broth inside. Or you can simply pop the whole dumpling in your mouth, experiencing a small explosion of juice and meaty pork filling in tandem.
Either way, if you consider yourself a xiao long bao connoisseur, the dumplings at Heng’s will likely register as pretty good, but hardly earth-shattering. They are sometimes a little too doughy, and the pork filling was a little bland on a recent visit. But they are still homemade xiao long bao, and it’s tough to think of a better way to start your meal at Heng’s, or anywhere else, than with a steam basket brimming with these prized dumplings.
There are other appetizers worth your attention, including Shanghai-style tea eggs. The marbled eggs, steeped in black tea, are fragrant and delicious — slightly salty and perfumed with five spice.
And then there are the pig ears. Described on the menu as “super spicy,” the pleasingly chewy, gelatinous slices were barely spicy on a recent visit, but they’re served in a sweet and garlicky chili sauce that’s hard not to love.
You’ll find the same Sichuan garlic chili sauce featured alongside the sliced pork belly appetizer. Melty and rich, the slices of chile-sluiced pork are wonderful. If you want to experience the palate-numbing pleasures of Sichuan peppercorns, though, you’ll have to request the dish extra-spicy.
Salted duck, another appetizer, looks wan and plain on the plate, but it’s packed with flavor. The gingery, anise-scented meat is chopped roughly into meaty, savory hunks and served cold like a pâté. It’s extra-fatty, very rich, and the type of heavy plate designed to be shared among a small group.
You will want to try the scallion pancake, too, at least once. Heng’s rendition of the classic Chinese street snack is not nearly as oniony or herbaceous as I would like, but its texture is compelling. The ultra-thin pancake is at once chewy, flaky, and very crisp. The pan-fried bread is delicately charred in places, delivering irresistible notes of toasted, buttery flavor.
Beyond the appetizer menu, you’ll find such classic noodle dishes as dandan noodles, served in a mild chili-oil sauce laced with minced pork and a scattering of greens. It’s chock-full of salty, savory flavor, and more complex than most standard takeout versions of the Sichuan staple. Again, though, you’ll have to request it extra spicy if you want to really taste and feel the peppercorns at work.
An order of kung pao triple delight is more or less a wash. The three-meat special features chicken, beef, and shrimp drenched in a too-sweet sauce, halfheartedly garnished with the requisite peanuts.
Mapo tofu is better, the slinky cubes of tofu swimming in red chili sauce. But, again, the default version is rather mild, and this dish begs to be served spicy.
Double-cooked pork, another Sichuan classic, is about as lush, tender, and flavorful as it sounds. On a recent visit, the slices of pork belly were aggressively seasoned, redolent of ginger and scallions. The belly meat is dressed in a salty and sweet sauce and sliced very thin, revealing every flavor-laden strata — skin, meat, and fat. The skin, in the places where it has been beautifully burnished in the wok, delivers a subtle yet wonderful crunch.
Lest you start to think that Heng’s is all pork belly and peppercorns (not that there’s anything wrong with that timeless pairing), Heng’s also has some standout vegetarian plates. There’s a lovely fried eggplant dish, in particular, which transmutes the veggie into chewy, caramelized, meaty hunks redolent of garlic and kissed with the heat of wok-fried chilies.
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More intriguingly, perhaps, and certainly not vegetarian, is the dish listed deep down on the menu as “sheep elbow.” The dish, it turns out, is one of the hidden gems at Heng’s Kitchen. It’s a lovely braised lamb shank served in a dark, complex gravy scented with five spice and ginger. The sauce is deep and vaguely sweet, the earthy, succulent quality of the braised meat offering reason enough to pay a lunchtime visit to Heng’s.
This restaurant might not replace your favorite traditional Chinese restaurant in town, but it offers great flavors and value in an unexpected setting.
66 South Dobson Road, # 127, Mesa
Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday.
Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) $6.25
Scallion pancake $4.25
Dandan noodles $7.95
Double-cooked pork $9.95
Sheep elbow (braised lamb shank) $10.95