There are tons of pho restaurants in Phoenix. Com Tam Thuan Kieu goes beyond | Phoenix New Times


No pho? No problem. Vietnamese restaurant Com Tam Thuan Kieu offers so much more

Though it's nearly 15 years old, this Vietnamese restaurant is routinely overlooked by Phoenix diners because it doesn't serve pho. That's a mistake.
At Com Tam Thuan Kieu, the signature plate is the Com Tam Thuan Kieu 10 Mon, a mound of steamed broken rice piled with all manner of Vietnamese dishes.
At Com Tam Thuan Kieu, the signature plate is the Com Tam Thuan Kieu 10 Mon, a mound of steamed broken rice piled with all manner of Vietnamese dishes. Dominic Armato
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The lunchtime rush has reached its peak at one of the most popular pho joints in town, and the place is hopping. If you wanted to make the case that Vietnamese cuisine has fully infiltrated the mainstream here in Phoenix, it would be easy to point out that the people packing the tables are a rather diverse bunch.

Only one problem. The food in front of them is … considerably less diverse.

You’ll spot a couple of banh mi and a smattering of spring rolls. But while the menu is jammed with a variety of Vietnamese offerings, almost every single diner in the house sits in front of a bathtub full of pho — one that’s approachable and serviceable but ultimately forgettable.

Meanwhile, just 10 paces away, on the other side of the Mekong Plaza entrance vestibule, Com Tam Thuan Kieu has plenty of tables to spare. Non-Asian customers are scant, and the few who saunter in don’t request pho, which is good, because pho isn’t on the menu.

In its place, you’ll find warm and comforting rice porridge; shrimp and pork-stuffed fried rolls wrapped in crackling rice paper; and a bounty of cool, vegetable-laden spring rolls served with vibrant, pungent dips. There’s glistening, steaming fried rice; rice noodle salads splashed with sweetened fish sauce; and giant bowls of pork broth boasting far more body and soul than its beefy competition across the way.

And that’s before we even get to the house specialty: heaving platters of steamed broken rice topped with a teeming buffet of bites and nibbles — grilled meats, pickled vegetables, crispy fried delights and Vietnamese charcuterie. You couldn’t dream up a better way to sample a variety of Vietnamese flavors all in one go.

All you have to do is muster the strength to tear yourself away from the pho for a minute.

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Hu tieu do bien sports thin rice noodles, a lighter broth and a mix of fish and calamari.
Dominic Armato

The phonundrum

Let’s be clear. Nobody, least of all me, is taking shots at pho.

When it’s prepared with care, and when its gentle aromatics aren’t obliterated by overzealous squirts of hoisin and Sriracha, pho is divine. It is clean and pure, gloriously uncomplicated, both refined and hearty at the same time. Pho was born for the spotlight, and there is a reason it carries the banner for Vietnamese cuisine’s crossover popularity.

But people, there is more to Vietnamese cuisine than pho.

Phoenix diners tend to reduce wildly diverse international cuisines down to a couple of popular dishes. In fairness, restaurants often usher them down that path. (Quick … how many local Vietnamese restaurants can you think of that don’t have the word “pho” in the name?) Still, much of this is human nature. Even when diners break out of their rut to explore other cuisines, they tend to quickly fall into a brand new, ever so slightly larger rut.

This kind of culinary tunnel vision is abetted and amplified by food media that gets the most clicks by showing people already-established favorites. And it’s how a restaurant like Com Tam Thuan Kieu can serve excellent food in a high-profile space for 15 years and still somehow remain an underappreciated gem of Mesa's Asian District.
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Com Tam Thuan Kieu is one of Mekong Plaza's original tenants, serving broken rice for nearly 15 years.
Dominic Armato

10 at a time

There’s a lot to dig into here, and every little nook of the menu deserves your attention. But if you’re looking for a place to start, the restaurant’s signature dish, the titanic Com Tam Thuan Kieu 10 Mon, is probably your best bet.

Com tam — steamed broken rice — is just its humble base. Originally the budget-friendly broken grain byproduct left over from rice processing, com tam’s nubbly texture eventually found favor as a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Served with a splash of shallot oil and some melted scallions and garlic chives, it’s tasty enough. But the heaping pile of stuff on top is where the action is.

Bring an appetite. Or a friend.

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At Com Tam Thuan Kieu, the signature plate is the Com Tam Thuan Kieu 10 Mon, a mound of steamed broken rice piled with all manner of Vietnamese dishes.
Dominic Armato
There’s chao tom (1), shrimp ground into a paste with fish sauce and seasoning, formed into a patty (usually around sugar cane or lemongrass) and cooked. It has a resilient, almost spongy texture and a delicate flavor. Wrap the same shrimp paste in tofu skin and deep fry it, and you’ve got tau hu ky (10), encased in an ethereal, wispy crisp. Or, even simpler, there’s tom nuong (2), a pair of shrimp bathed in salty fish sauce caramel and quickly grilled.

Suon nuong (3) is a bone-in pork chop cut extremely thin — a quarter of an inch, at most — marked with some smoky char and slathered in sweet sauce that works its way into the rice below. Deep within the pile lies a tangle of bi (4), finely julienned pork skin tossed in toasted rice powder. More about texture, it’s a dry, chaotic jumble with a very mild flavor and a satisfying, resilient chew.

Also grilled is the nem nuong (5), a slice of sweet and garlicky fresh pork sausage that’s finely textured, plump and juicy. Meanwhile, lap xuong (6) is a Vietnamese take on the classic Chinese sausage — dense, dried, chewy, sweet and fragrant and seasoned with rice wine, soy sauce and spice.

Another textural trip is the cha trung (7), which is either an eggy meatloaf or a meaty omelet, take your pick. However you describe it, it’s a sliced cake of seasoned eggs and ground pork, flecked with shredded wood ear mushrooms and glassy cellophane noodles that lend it a rough, crumbly texture.

Lastly, you’ll find two types of fried roll: cha gio thit (8) and cha gio tom (9), filled with pork and shrimp, respectively. Most restaurants around town will wrap these in spring roll wrappers, but like many Vietnamese joints, Com Tam Thuan Kieu opts for rice paper — the same kind of supple, pale white wrappers used for fresh spring rolls — that crackles and takes on a kind of wild, chewy-crisp texture when it’s fried, punctuated by blistered bubbles of fried rice.

There are no rules here. Use a fork, spoon or chopsticks; dip the morsels in the accompanying bowl of seasoned fish sauce or splash it over the top; and eat it all together or meticulously work your way around the plate. Nibble on some fresh cucumber or pickled cabbage whenever it feels right. But however you eat it, once you get through that plate, you’ve already sampled more Vietnamese flavors than most of the folks who habitually slurp pho.

Heads up. There are still a hundred and something dishes on the menu left to try.

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The cha gio — like many dishes at Com Tam Thuan Kieu — are served with lettuce and garnishes for wrapping and dipping.
Dominic Armato

Combinations and permutations

Okay, that’s a little misleading.

Some might find the menu at Com Tam Thuan Kieu intimidating. But it seems less so when you consider that 90% of the menu is made up of various combinations and permutations of the same handful of dishes.

Atop your broken rice, you can also get flanken-cut grilled short ribs in a sticky fish sauce marinade, batons of thinly sliced beef wrapped around sauteed onions called bo bia, or a whole fried Cornish game hen (a bit dry, unfortunately) topped with a fried egg. But most of the 18 com tam offerings are just subsets of the 10-dish platter.

What’s more, the com tam toppings, served atop bun kho or banh hoi, comprise a full third of the menu.

Bun kho — likely familiar to those who frequent pho joints — are skinny rice vermicelli noodles, served chilled in a bowl with lettuce and fresh herbs, garnished with pickled vegetables and crushed peanuts, and topped with whatever manner of Vietnamese nibbles float your boat. With a splash of sweet fish sauce, this is hot weather food made with the same elements as the com tam dishes reconfigured into a format that’s light and refreshing.

Banh hoi, meanwhile, are a little less common around town, but they’re another playful variation on the theme. These ultrafine rice noodles are woven into a tight, spongy lattice and formed into thick sheets that are steamed and cut into smaller squares. Served similarly to com tam, they soak up the sauce from the grilled delicacies and are delicious eaten as-is. But they’re served with a plate of lettuce and garnish for rolling and dipping, if you like.

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If you choose egg noodles, they'll swim in a rich and complex chicken broth.
Dominic Armato

Noodles for breakfast

Everyone should feel comfortable exploring Com Tam Thuan Kieu’s noodle soups. Though you may wish to reconsider when you order them. Everything is available from open to close, and there’s no stigma attached to ordering whenever you please. But this is a spot where you can grab noodle soups as they’re often eaten in Vietnam: for breakfast.

The hu tieu at Com Tam Thuan Kieu is just as compelling as the restaurant's namesake dish.

It’s available with rice noodles or egg noodles served wet or dry and with any number of additions. The common element is the broth.

Pho-philes will feel right at home ordering the hu tieu banh pho nam vang, a familiar tangle of clear rice noodles swimming in a bowlful of clear broth along with shrimp, sliced pork, ground pork and a bobbing, poached quail egg if you’re lucky. But this broth is less fragrant and more hearty than its beefy brethren, a silky concoction that’s lush and umami-rich. It’s beautiful on its own, but here’s where you can season as you see fit.

A light touch is plenty. A few drops of fish sauce, a squirt of citrus or a scattering of torn chrysanthemum leaves from the accompanying garnish plate, and the soup goes from savory to sublime. This is the kind of dish that doesn’t peak until you’re halfway through, when you’ve dialed in your seasonings and the broth’s luscious lick of pork fat has coated your tongue. Suddenly it clicks, and every slurp blooms with a rich warmth that wraps itself around you and follows you out the door when you leave.

The mi bo vien served dry is one of my favorite variations. Covered with scallions, chives and crispy fried shallots, it’s a bowl of skinny, delicate egg noodles served with bo vien — robust Vietnamese beef meatballs heavily worked and fortified with starch to give them a bit of a snap and a dense, hearty chew. This is the opposite of what we find desirable in European meatballs and a textbook example of how there’s more than one way to do things “right.”

Perhaps the best part of ordering hu tieu dry is that the broth comes on the side, plain as can be, completely unadorned but for a few bits of scallion and a small cube of stewed pork. There may be no better way to appreciate Com Tam Thuan Kieu’s broth. And that hunk of pork, though it contains cartilage and connective tissue, has stewed so long that it dissolves on your tongue like a cloud of liquid meat, a melt-away bit of pure unadorned porky bliss.

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Phan nem nuong nha trang cuon are some of the best fresh rolls on the menu, served with a salty-sweet crab dip.
Dominic Armato

Too many good things

There’s much more to try at Com Tam Thuan Kieu, and within the broader scope of Vietnamese cuisine, even this hefty menu is barely a drop in the bucket.

So why is getting people to try anything other than pho such a heavy lift?

It’s tempting to blame the internet's bandwagoning winner-take-all culture, where what’s “best” and what isn’t is the only framework that sells. Or perhaps our collective obsession with iconic dishes is more a matter of social identity than culinary preference. But I’d like to think that more people would be willing to quit hugging the trunk and step out on a limb if they just had a bit of a guide to give them permission.

So consider the menu at Com Tam Thuan Kieu a guide. No more excuses. Get going.

Com Tam Thuan Kieu

66 S. Dobson Road, Mesa (Inside Mekong Plaza)
9:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily
Starters $6.50-$12; Mains $13-$25.

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