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Hood Wink

I've got neighborhood envy again. This time it's an unassuming pocket of Mesa, on Dobson Road just north of Southern, where you'll find one of my favorite strip malls in the Valley. Anchored by Asiana Market, a Korean grocery store that sells everything from kimchi to candy, the corner is...
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I've got neighborhood envy again.

This time it's an unassuming pocket of Mesa, on Dobson Road just north of Southern, where you'll find one of my favorite strip malls in the Valley. Anchored by Asiana Market, a Korean grocery store that sells everything from kimchi to candy, the corner is home to a variety of Asian businesses. Among the dining options, there's Best Hong Kong Dining, an awesome Korean restaurant called Hodori, and a cute little smoothie and boba tea shop. It looks as if an under-construction Japanese place will soon join them.

But right now, the destination of my affection is Dragonfly Vietnamese Kitchen.

I have no qualms about frequenting dives when the food rocks and the price is right. (Take Da Vang, on 19th Avenue near Campbell Avenue, for example. It's an old favorite for authentic Vietnamese but it has nothing going for it in the looks department.) Dragonfly, however, manages to pull off great, authentic ethnic cuisine and a surprisingly pleasant cafe-style atmosphere, with plummy cocoa-colored walls, framed photos by local artists, warm orange blown-glass pendant lamps, and lime green tables that match a striking green orchid on the front counter.

It's not fancy, just clean and inviting — and dirt cheap, to boot. Nothing on the lengthy menu is over $8.50.

My single hang-up with Dragonfly (aside from the fact that it's not right around the corner from my home) is the service. Yes, the youthful waitstaff was welcoming — no bad attitudes in the house. Things were just plain slow. Dragonfly seemed understaffed because it was hard to flag anyone down. When I was in a leisurely mood, it wasn't that bad, but on one occasion, when appetizers arrived and our server scurried off before realizing that we didn't have napkins or utensils, it was annoying.

If Dragonfly could hire a few more helping hands, it would have everything going for it.

Once I got down to eating, I was happy all over again. The food was consistently fresh and delicious, with abundant portions and nice presentations.

The appetizers alone would've made a decent meal. Just think about the genius of goi cuon, traditional Vietnamese spring rolls wrapped in soft rice paper — you get meat, vegetables and noodles all in one bite. Dragonfly's standard version, filled with shrimp, thin slices of pork, cucumber, and rice vermicelli, was tasty. It came with chile-spiked peanut sauce.

I was more intrigued by some of the variations. Shiitake mushrooms and crisp fried tofu gave flavor and substance to the outstanding vegetarian spring rolls, while pan-seared halibut was the most uncommon goi cuon filling. The moist, slightly smoky fish, combined with spicy-sweet peanut dip, made it one of my favorite dishes.

Chao tom, two grilled sugar cane skewers coated in ground shrimp paste, made an interesting starter, but they were outshined by the luscious banh xeo, something I have to order at every Vietnamese restaurant. It's a fried crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, folded in half like a fat omelet. You eat it by cutting off a hunk, wrapping it up in a piece of lettuce with cucumber and carrot, and dipping it in sweet, tangy nuoc cham, an amber-colored liquid made with fish sauce. Dragonfly's was very good.

The menu had several varieties of cha gio, or Vietnamese egg rolls; I went with cha gio tom. These had a whole shrimp tucked into a crisp wonton wrapper, made plump with a filling of ground pork, taro, and clear vermicelli noodles. The spicy chile sauce that accompanied them was a fine balance of salty and sweet. Along with these, I ordered some papaya salad (goi du du), which turned out to be quite a hefty serving. Topped with peanuts and chile sauce, the mix of shrimp, basil, carrot, and translucent papaya shreds was a refreshing palate cleanser after the cha gio.

Of course, there was pho at Dragonfly. I won't go back to a place if the signature rice noodle soup isn't good, but here, I knew I'd be back as soon as I smelled the steam rising from the herb-filled beef broth. There were eight kinds of pho with various cuts of beef, plus chicken and seafood versions. I went for the pho dac biet, an über-soup with the works: thinly sliced eye round steak, tender brisket, meatballs, tripe, well-done flank, and tendon. It was an enormous bowl, nicely arranged, and there wasn't too much or too little of any one ingredient.

There were other kinds of noodles, too. Like the pho, the mi hoanh thanh was practically big enough for two people, with egg noodles, pork-filled wontons, and slices of barbecued pork in a clear broth.

Among the rice dishes (com tam) that I sampled, the shrimp simmered in fish sauce was the most memorable, with a mysterious flavor that was simultaneously savory and sweet. The barbecued quail was also noteworthy — crisp outside, buttery inside. Comparing those, I was indifferent about the lemongrass chicken, but it was still well-prepared, with a smoky charbroiled flavor.

Bun nem nuong cha gio, a cold noodle dish, was my kind of summery food: chunks of egg roll and grilled sausage, slivers of carrot and cucumber, sprouts, noodles, and nuoc cham, all jumbled together in a wide bowl. For a cooler day, the house special fried rice (com chien duong chau) was fortifying, an appealing heap of rice, egg, shrimp, bits of sausage and barbecued pork, and scallions. Again, it was big enough to feed two, maybe three people (especially if they ate enough of those spring rolls).

The restaurant had a glass display case filled with pretty little pastries and fruit tarts, but I simply never made it that far. Nor did I get to taste one of the avocado smoothies, which sounded strangely good but weren't available when I ordered one. The homemade limeade, however, was really thirst-quenching, and the Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk was potent enough to save me from post-lunch drowsiness.

It's a good thing I loaded up on caffeine before I hopped on the 60 to head back to Phoenix. Nope, Dragonfly isn't in my part of town, but as long as I can top the meal with a jolt of liquid energy, I'm happy to drive for food like that.

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