Memoirs of an Eggplant

Sometimes all it takes is a taste of something — or even just the scent — to transport me to another place.

I think of sangria-fueled New York dinner parties when I eat ropa vieja, the tomatoey Cuban beef dish. Fresh cilantro in a hot bowlful of pho reminds me of rainy-day lunches in Seattle. A cup of Constant Comment tea — with milk and sugar, please — brings me back to my grandmother's kitchen. I'm lost in Chinatown when I get so much as a whiff of dried Chinese herbs, and the smell of sizzling butter and fresh crepe batter plants me on a busy Parisian street corner.

Usually, my sensory travels take me across the country or around the world, but my most recent jaunt wasn't far by any stretch: 15 minutes on the I-10. One bite of spicy garlic eggplant at Mr. Chao's Asia Bistro, in Ahwatukee, sent me all the way back to central Phoenix.


Mr. Chao's Asia Bistro

4232 East Chandler Boulevard, Ahwatukee

Pot stickers: $4.50

Hot and sour soup: $6.50

Spicy garlic eggplant: $7.95

Singapore-style mifun: $8.95

Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.

It was kind of funny, but I didn't say anything about it to my dining companions at the time. Then one of my friends piped up, "This eggplant is exactly like what they used to serve at China Chili!"

No wonder. Chef Andy Tran and his wife, Amy Chao, were the original owners of the popular central Phoenix Chinese restaurant. It was a no-frills, inexpensive place that drew raves from the downtown business crowd. Eventually, they sold China Chili (which closed this past spring but will soon reopen at a new location), and three years ago, they opened Mr. Chao's Asia Bistro in a tiny strip mall storefront.

I was surprised to learn that the place has been around as long as it has. Chao says they've been relying on word of mouth for new customers. As for the new-looking decor, she explains that it's constantly being updated. The walls, painted a fresh, bright shade of red, are decorated with framed prints and whimsical Chinese masks. Sheer fabric is draped above the entrance and the counter at the back of the room, and there's a small vase of colorful flowers on each table. Booths are upholstered in pretty red and gold patterned fabric. It's a lot nicer than most neighborhood joints — simple, but stylish.

The menu's pretty simple, too — not the mind-boggling list of 100 different entrees you'd find at old-school Chinese restaurants. But from what I tasted, in this case, I can definitely say that less is more.

Pork- and scallion-filled pot stickers were huge, handmade — and delicious. As much as I love pork, the quality of the meat inside Chinese pot stickers can really vary, especially if the kitchen's only frying up something pre-made, from the freezer. But here, the dumpling filling was meaty and moist, a nice contrast to the crispy wrapper.

Soup arrived in a large tureen, enough for four people. Corn soup, with its golden ribbons of delicately cooked egg, was essentially egg flower soup with the addition of corn and minced chicken (the egg flower soup at Mr. Chao's contains tomato and snow peas). It was mild and comforting, a stark contrast to the hot and sour soup. I liked both, but the latter was more of a rush, a bracingly peppery stew of tofu chunks; scallion; sliced celery; crunchy, translucent Chinese mushrooms; and swirls of egg. One of my dining companions was coming down with a cold when we went to Mr. Chao's, but after a cupful of this, she perked right up.

The barbecued pork chow mein was straightforward (if a tad greasy), a generous plate of soy-flavored noodles fried with sprouts, scallions and onions. Singapore-style mifun made more of an impression. Too many places serve this up dry, but here, the angel-hair rice noodles — fried with green pepper, onion, sprouts, and egg — were moist with spicy curry sauce. The kitchen didn't skimp on shrimp or barbecued pork, either.

One of my dining companions wanted the sweet and sour chicken, seemingly the only thing he'll order from a Chinese menu. I was a little worried — needlessly, as it turned out. For a lot of people, that dish is an old standby, but I've had some terrible renditions over the years — greasy, over-fried chicken that no amount of neon-orange sauce could save. That's not an issue here, though. Mr. Chao's version is crispy and light, with juicy white meat inside.

Next time I'll dare my friend to try the Mr. Chao's chicken, a similar dish that I tried on another visit. The fried chicken was just as good, but the sauce was better, with spicy red chile to rough up the sweetness.

Chile was key to the Mongolian beef, too. It was a soy-tinged sauté of marinated beef, scallions, and slightly caramelized onions, served over a crisp layer of rice noodles that absorbed the spicy sauce. Chile also mingled with garlic, onions, and tomato in a smooth but fiery sauce that made dry-braised prawns glisten. This one was a hit with my friends, and even after we ate up the tender seafood, we couldn't resist sopping up the sauce with the steamed broccoli it was served on.

Too bad there was nothing spicy about the Buddha's Feast. The dish was a bore, a stir-fry of vegetables and tofu in bland white wine sauce. Fresh, yes, but flavorless. Considering the bold flavors of so many other things I ate at Mr. Chao's — even among the vegetarian offerings — I guess this was a token offering to sensitive palates.

I'll stick with that spicy garlic eggplant, a platter of fork-tender, braised Japanese eggplant slathered in tangy brown sauce. Nothing fancy, just delicious — a humble vegetable made into a delicacy. Even before I tasted it, it took me back as I inhaled the pungent scent of scallions, chile, and garlic, reminding me of a favorite dish at China Chili.

Sure, it wasn't anywhere far off or exotic, but it didn't need to be. I thought this dish was long gone, and here it was, just as I remembered it. It was as comforting as catching up with an old friend.

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