Like the Loch Ness monster and Sasquatch, the cheap-ethnic-restaurant gem is a
we're always on the lookout for. You know the mythical story: It's a place run by an old-country family that serves delicacies from the homeland fit for royalty, all for about the cost of a week-overdue library book.
I'm still waiting for my first glimpse of Nessie and Bigfoot. But I have made a cheap-ethnic-restaurant-gem sighting. It's Spring Restaurant, a Vietnamese delight tucked away in a sprawling shopping plaza at the southwest corner of 43rd Avenue and Bethany Home Road.
The proprietor once had connections to Pearl of Asia, a first-rate, white-linen-tablecloth Vietnamese restaurant in central Phoenix that folded earlier this year. About five months ago, he packed up and moved most of the menu west, and most of the prices south. Except for a few elaborate specialties and seafood platters, almost nothing goes for more than the cost of a movie ticket. And it's all dazzlingly good.
Like most cheap-ethnic-restaurant gems, Spring is somewhat aesthetically challenged. The large, windowless room seems kind of barnlike. Fake-wood paneling and framed Asian prints line the otherwise bare white walls. Loud, Vegas-style lounge music--heavy on saxophone and bass--pounds through the music system. However, a well-tended shrine at the entrance, with statues, bowls of fruit and incense, indicates that the owner does have his spiritual priorities in order.
And just about whatever ends up on your plate indicates that the kitchen priorities are in order as well. Vietnamese food is different from its neighbors'. It's not as spicy or exotic as Thai cuisine, or as vigorous and complex as Chinese fare. For the most part, it's light, simple and straightforward. Just about everything comes with a pile of greenery--lettuce, cilantro, mint--and the ubiquitous fish sauce used for dipping, nuoc nam.
Start off with Goi Cuon, Vietnamese spring rolls, and you'll see what I mean. Unlike Chinese egg rolls, they're not fried. Instead, you get shrimp, pork, rice noodles and greenery wrapped in rice paper. (You can also get deep-fried egg rolls, but they have a decidedly offbeat flavor that first-timers may have trouble getting used to.)
If you crave an unusual appetizer, check out what the menu calls deep-fried crab cakes. Actually, they're shaped more like oversize meatballs. Eggy, crabby and just a bit chewy, they have a certain piquant appeal after they're dipped into the nuoc nam.
But make sure you don't miss Banh Xeo, one of the best appetizers you'll find anywhere in Maricopa County. It's a huge, fresh, skillet-fried crepe, studded with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, which by itself justifies a trip to Spring.
Happily, so do many other dishes on the extensive menu. Though it's hardly soup weather, the hot-and-sour catfish soup can make you forget we're still a week away from the fall equinox. The broth sports a Thai-like intensity, sharpened with lemon and chiles and softened with pineapple. It's thickly stocked with veggies and hefty amounts of catfish. Watch out for bones.
One gorgeous specialty held over from Pearl of Asia days is Chao Tom, as tasty as it is unusual. Shrimp is ground into a paste, shaped around a stick of sugar cane and deep-fried. To eat, pull out the sugar cane and suck out its juices, then wrap the shrimp in greenery and dunk in the fish sauce. I can't see putting $7.95 to much better use.
It's hard to imagine that Ta Pin Lu Nuong Vi (No. 88 to you and me) could be improved in any way. A server trundles over a portable grill, fires it up, lines it with butter and sautes some onions. Then she gently sizzles up thin slices of beef, a handful of squid and ten shrimp, all marinated and heavily seasoned with garlic and ground peanuts. When they're done, she unfolds rice-paper wrappers and crams them with greenery and the grilled animal protein. You get about a dozen scrumptious rice-paper rolls, plenty for three or four folks to share.
Nem Nuong is another treat, skewered and grilled pork sausage that you wrap in greenery and dip into a perky peanut sauce. And Shrimp Simmered in Special Sauce is special indeed--a dozen crustaceans in a mild, deeply flavored dark sauce.
If you're a beginner and don't wish to stray too far from the familiar, Spring can also take care of you. Noodle fans should enjoy the platter of stir-fried beef and vegetables over rice noodles, which features lots of surprisingly tender meat. Chicken curry tastes nothing like an Indian dish, but it's lick-off-the-spoon luscious and fragrant without any hint of chile bite. And even a dull dish like fried rice benefits from the Vietnamese flavor treatment. Remove the lid of the clay pot it comes in, and you'll inhale the steaming ginger vapors. Shredded chicken and pickled cabbage further gild this very effective dish. Don't bother, however, with the lackluster chicken and sauteed vegetables--with no special flavors or fragrances, it seems boring compared with everything else I sampled.
Adventurers can also get their thrills from the beverage list. To Coke-swilling Americans, Vietnamese thirst quenchers have to be the oddest on Earth. If salty plum sodas or soybean milk drinks sound a little too exotic, I suggest falling back on the iced lemon tea, a sweet, refreshing drink that doesn't push the edge of the weirdness envelope.
Looking for outstanding Vietnamese fare? As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, it might as well be Spring.
Pink Pepper Thai Cuisine, 245 East Bell, Phoenix, 548-1333. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 4:30 p.m. to close, seven days a week.
If you grew up in Phoenix, you may have had your first taste of Thai food at Pink Pepper. This venerable operation (there are two other branches) was one of the Valley's ethnic-restaurant pioneers, giving many desert dwellers their first crack at foreign dishes that weren't wrapped in a tortilla, topped with marinara sauce or accompanied by egg rolls.
But time seems to have passed by the Pink Pepper. Fare pitched to novices a decade ago may once have seemed exotic, but now it seems uncommonly tame. The hard-hitting fragrances of Thai cuisine--lemongrass, cilantro, lime leaf, galangal--lack power. Nor will diners find much in the way of culinary flair or imagination.
At the Bell Road location, the decor cues suggest that the Pink Pepper's customers aren't likely to be homesick natives looking for an old-country hangout. That's country music coming out of the speakers, and I don't mean Thai country music, either. (The Monkees and the Beatles also entertain.) The few knickknacks--some vases, an occasional print--are light on home-country reminders as well.
I've never been much of a fan of Thai appetizers--they're usually not nearly as interesting as the main dishes. The Pink Pepper's Kanom Jeeb confirmed my theory. These dumplings had a woeful, store-bought quality. Moreover, they arrived tough and chewy, with curled edges, as if they had been microwaved instead of steamed or skillet-fried. What's going on here? Nam Sod is a somewhat more appealing way to edge into dinner--ground pork unassertively seasoned with ginger and lime.
While Thai starters don't turn me on, Thai soups do. When they're done right, these broths have no equal. But the Pink Pepper's models are a disappointment. First of all, they don't come bubbling in those big, Sterno-fired tureens. Instead, they're served in individual cups. Second, they taste like they were ladled out of a ten-gallon metal soup container. Tom Yum Gai is hardly the "savory hot and sour soup with chicken, mushroom and Thai herb" promised by the menu. It's a watery broth with almost no flavor, sparsely stocked with a few forlorn bits of poultry. The Tom Yum Ga-Ti is partially redeemed by the flavors of chile and coconut milk, but it's still a pale version of what it ought to be.
Main dishes are perfectly serviceable, but too often perfectly forgettable. Flaming fish with spicy lemon sauce, for example, sounds like it has possibilities. But it's just pieces of orange roughy and veggies warmed by a Sterno flame, moistened by a routine lemon sauce. The Thai barbecued chicken also falls short of rival local versions. You get half a crisp bird teamed with two perky sauces, hot and sour and hot chile. But the chicken itself is not distinctively flavored.
If you're searching for a bit more flavor wallop, you might try Nuah Yang, a beef dish whose best feature is a zippy sauce spiced up with ginger, garlic, chile and sesame seeds. Too bad the beef itself is tough.
For more complete satisfaction, go for the Mussaman Curry, which shows off the Indian influence on Thai cuisine. It combines chicken and potatoes in a mild, fragrant curry sauce. Thailand's cooks also borrow from China, and the Spicy Eggplant demonstrates their prowess. It's the only dish here that shook me by the lapels, lots of pulpy eggplant in a deep, dark, rich garlic sauce that I ordered spicy hot.
(Note to the uninitiated: Thai food may be the hottest on the planet. At your command, the kitchen will spice up your dishes on a scale of one [air] to ten [call the paramedics]. Numbness starts at seven.)
Still, for every Spicy Eggplant, there are too many snoozers like Pan-Fried Seafood, a dull blend of scallos, squid, shrimp, two mussels and veggies in a one-note chile sauce. Even the national noodle dish, Pad Thai, rice noodles stocked with chicken, shrimp, scallions and sprouts, failed to ignite my taste buds.
Dessert is limited to a refreshing coconut ice cream. But why no other native sweets? These days, you can get sticky rice pudding with mangoes, tapioca pudding with coconut milk or banana fritters at other Thai restaurants in town.
The Pink Pepper once defined Thai food in the Valley. If you're living in the 1980s, it still does.
Hot-and-sour catfish soup
Ta Pin Lu Nuong Vi
Pink Pepper Thai Cuisine:
Flaming fish with spicy lemon sauce