Best Thing I Ate All Week: Satisfying Neighborhood Vietnamese Food

Shrimp spring rolls from Tea Light CafeEXPAND
Shrimp spring rolls from Tea Light Cafe
Chris Malloy

The Valley has a surprisingly robust constellation of Vietnamese restaurants. Just about every town has many, and a particularly strong option or two. Phoenix isn’t Houston, but at least we can get a decent banh xeo. The other day, when the mercury slumped a few degrees, I told myself that real fall was coming in and went to my local Vietnamese spot for a soup.

The spot is Tea Light Cafe, not far from the Scottsdale Road exit off of Highway 101. This long nook of a restaurant with low light and modest tables isn’t going to rewire your synapses. It isn’t a pyrotechnic restaurant with a dazzling menu. It’s a small place with a lot of regulars that cooks just a few foods, and cooks them well.
Cold noodles. Rice plates. Salads. Pho.

Your bowl of pho comes out from the back on a smoothly wheeling cart in about five minutes.

The pho options seem to be slightly geared toward American palates. I don’t mean this in the negative sense that I generally would when voicing a thought like this one. That pho is still easily enjoyable. But you won’t see fellow diners ripping into pallid shrimp balls, and your mild broth won’t blow anybody’s head sideways with aromatic depth or fish sauce funk.

Your options are beef, chicken, vegetable, and shrimp.

A bowl of shrimp pho was the best thing I ate all week. The pho is light, the elements thoughtful, the flavors dialed down, the low volume befitting the fragrant nature of the tiny shrimp buoyed to the clear surface of the broth. Shrimp is a subtle meat, one that doesn’t exactly zap your palate with the animal lightning of, say, porterhouse. The light broth, though at first you may crave flavors wilder and headier, makes honest sense here.

The soup is just really clean and light. A tangle of rice noodles about as thin as headphone cords is knotted in the broth. You see little “Cs” of pink shrimp. There are four kinds of onions. Thin green. Fat green. White onions sliced so thin they all but dissolve. And bits of fried red onion, added to only the shellfish. These are tiny bits, small pieces making a small difference, but a tiny blip of oil and brownness can feel giant when everything is so restrained.

This being pho, a plate of optional add-ons comes on the side. Bean sprouts. Lime wedge. Basil. Jalapenos. This being pho, I dumped or squeezed everything in. Tea Light also offers a saucer of peppered lemon juice. This added some zip to the broth and jives with the standard cilantro, throwing the flavors off the shrimp into bracing relief the way citrus does.

Anyway, the best thing I ate all week was a simple bowl of pho. Simple and thoughtful. It was as much about the kind service and the setting – to be eating a soup again in a good place for soups – as it was the flavor. Or rather, the flavors and soulful nature of the broth made the mind meditative, letting you think about how good it is to be able to check out a local Vietnamese spot on a dime, about how good it is to eat a soup without melting.

Tea Light Cafe. 7000 East Mayo Boulevard #1084; 480-538-1600.
Monday to Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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