Cafe Reviews

Henry's Taiwan in Tempe Is Accessible, Affordable, and Enjoyable

Henry Ku is the chef and restaurateur who has been credited with putting Taiwanese food on the map in Seattle. And he isn't stopping there.

With three restaurants in the Seattle area, Ku opened Henry's Taiwan in Tempe in August and will open a location in Los Angeles this month. He's even adding wine pairings to the picture, a prospect that Ku's friend and business partner, Richard Kuo, says was no easy task.

"At wine-buying events, I ask people three questions," Kuo says. "Have you done wine pairings? Have you done wine pairings with Chinese food? And what kind of wine pairs well with stinky tofu?"

At the Tempe store, as in his other restaurants, Ku further adds to the Asian island's melting pot of cooking styles from mainland China, Europe, and Japan by blending the childhood memories of his homeland with the French cooking techniques he learned in the States.

"We did some research and discovered Arizona State University has a huge Chinese population," says Kuo, who manages the Tempe location. "Around 80 percent of our customers are Chinese and about 10 percent are Taiwanese. Families will come in to give us a try, but they're mostly cooking at home. The students, though, the students will come in almost every day."

They do. On my visits, Henry's was packed. Buzzing with energy, the tiny dining room's assemblage of tables and booths were occupied by 20-somethings in bright dresses and designer jeans who tucked into bowls of soup, snacked on bits of fresh garlic and sweet Taiwanese sausage, and slurped on fresh fruit smoothies while excitedly greeting friends who, gushing apologies, had arrived late to dinner.

So it is important to note that Henry's Taiwan, set into an unmarked storefront in a strip mall at Southern and Mill avenues, is neither a chefly interpretation of Taiwanese food nor a trendy theme of Taiwanese fantasia from an enterprising entrepreneur. It is, quite simply, a surprisingly accessible, affordable, and instantly enjoyable restaurant whose food has come to Tempe by way of Taiwan, France, and the United States. And your opinion of it will play itself out on that basis.

Given that snacks, or xiao chi, are a cherished tradition in Taiwan (its capital Taipei has about 20 streets committed to snacking), you'll most likely want one — perhaps several if you've settled in for a meal with friends. Henry's has 19 of them on the menu, most for about five or six bucks.

Along with the Taiwanese sausage (from a recipe from Ku's sister and custom-made at a Seattle sausage shop), other small eats include a cold dish of thinly sliced chewy, spicy, and sweet beef tendon; a gooey oyster omelet slathered in peanut sauce that can be amped up with the request of condiments like soy and spicy chili sauce; and the notorious Taiwanese snack that packs a stench, stinky tofu.

Love it or hate it, stinky tofu (flash-fried cubes of fermented bean curd) has a strangely earthy and sweet flavor but with a smell that's been likened to body odor, sewage, and even a rotting corpse. At Henry's, it matches perfectly with chili sauce and cool, crunchy garlic kimchi. Fans of pungent French cheeses will understand the correlation. For everyone else, pinch your nose and dive in.

Street food snacks continue in Henry's dim sum section, one that Kuo says is a Taiwanese interpretation ("no chicken feet") of the small dishes served in Chinese banquet-style restaurants.

Here, you'll find pork in almost every dish: packed into plump boiled dumplings, ground and flecked with bits of vegetables and wrapped with a crinkly crisp bean curd skin as a pork roll (not chicken, as stated on the menu), and stuffed into an enormous sticky rice roll. This Taiwanese street food favorite consists of shredded dried pork, pickled radish, and bits of soy egg encased in sticky glutinous white rice for what amounts to the Taiwanese version of the burrito. It's best eaten by slowly pulling down its plastic wrapping to keep it from falling apart.

And what would a restaurant that caters to the whims of the young be without beef bing, China's answer to the hamburger? Henry's version features flattened discs of golden fried dough filled with juicy ground beef and just enough onions.

You may want to know that many of the main dishes here are served in portion sizes that result in leftovers. Some may lack the depth of flavor that you might expect, like Ku's signature beef soup with thick and chewy noodles. But the simple, slightly sweet broth is still satisfying, thanks to the talents of chef Liu Zhihua, who was on the ground floor of Tempe's Miu's Cuisine, the tongue-numbing Sichuan restaurant that opened in January.

"If you want it to be spicier, I can do that," says Zhihua, smiling.

There are very good black pepper chicken tenders, deep-fried chunks of dark chicken meat with a crisp, light skin seasoned with salt, pepper, and spices. Placed atop rice along with bits of pork belly, pickled radish, boiled bok choy, and a soy egg, it's more or less a bento box in a bowl. (For a more creative take, Ku also does a version that replaces the chicken with lamb chops crusted with a honey mustard glaze.) The popular Taiwanese dish Three Cup Chicken is excellent as well, its sweet sauce clinging to chunks of bone-in succulent meat adorned with handfuls of ginger, garlic, and basil.

For stir-fry dishes, there's a plainly delicious plate of sautéed creamy cabbage in a delicate sauce with dried mini shrimp and a few chiles, or flap-ridged pieces of firm and meaty squid cooked with Chinese vegetables in a light sweet-and-sour sauce.

And for those who may have exhausted the menu's offerings or simply want to take the Henry's Taiwan road less traveled, there is a specials board. A listing of about six items that change every three months, there may be dishes such as crispy basil chicken, minced pork rice, and sweet and sour spare ribs.

When I ask Kuo whether Henry's will get a liquor license, he simply gestures to the restaurant's neighbor, a drive-through liquor store next door.

"Liquor licenses are expensive," he says. "It seems pretty easy to do a BYOB."

And just what wine pairs best with stinky tofu? Ku says he likes Long Shadows Poet's Leap Botrytis Riesling, a dessert wine from Washington's Columbia Valley.

"The tofu has a fermented, yeasty taste, like wine. The dessert wine is sweet. Together, they balance each other."

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld