Rising Fried from the Flames

From the looks of it, Phoenix Café doesn’t amount to much. It’s located in a bland strip center dominated by acres of parking, and the décor, with its harsh lighting and shopworn carpet, is no great shakes, either. Yet in the manner of the truck stop, where the old saw is that a lot of rigs in the lot signal good food inside, the presence of a substantial Asian clientele seems to signal authenticity. If you’re careful to ask for the “authentic” Chinese menu, not the flossier and presumably inauthentic one, you too can partake of the real thing.

Phoenix puzzles visitors further by listing daily specials at the door and under the glass-topped tables (your guess as to whether they’re authentic or in-) and by posting a chalkboard with chef’s specials (we assume the genuine article here). In order to reduce confusion, we limited ourselves to the authentic menu and the chalkboard — and to the also-separate dim-sum menu.

Phoenix offers dim sum daily, and though the selection is limited (there are no carts), what we had was very good indeed. Figuring it was going to be hard to get clear information on the composition of each morsel, we simply plunged ahead, ordering one known quantity (the steamed turnip cake and sausage), one known but for the form (the pork and crab-roe “shimmy”), and one shot in the dark (the cha tom cang cua).

The silky and delicate turnip custard was a delight with its crisp bits of sausage; the shimmy turned out to be a savory, steamed, open-top dumpling with roe scattered on top; and the cha revealed itself as a crab “finger” surrounded by a blob of minced crab that had likely been mixed with egg white and cornstarch (just a guess) and deep fried. Again, delicate; again very good.

We could have saved ourselves a bit of pain, however, by just asking our firecracker waitress for advice. Michelle, from Szechuan, was possibly the best waitperson I’ve ever had at an Asian restaurant, and though her accent was occasionally a little impenetrable, we got great opinions and advice once we tuned into it. Here’s what our collaboration produced:

Michelle suggested the deep-fried flounder from the blackboard — a dish we had been contemplating — and it arrived napped with a lustrous brown sauce and strewn with scallion. Watch out for the main spine, but the deep-frying renders most minor bones crunchy and edible. More than merely edible, the flesh is both crisp and moist, and the flat fish was quickly reduced to a pile of shards.

Following on its heels, if a fish can be said to have them, was Michelle’s pick of our proffered tofu dishes — the Special Tofu with a base of mashed bean curd topped with an array of chopped and cornstarch-thickened vegetables, chicken, and seafood, all garlanded with sliced tomatoes. We liked this dish for its pretty appearance and subtle charms, but in the manner of bland grits with a topping of cream gravy, I suggest you have to grow up with what seems like an Asian version of comfort food to truly appreciate it. The addition of some of the modest amount of remaining brown sauce from the fish did wonders for the Occidental palate.

The salt-toasted spare ribs were our idea, and the name is a little misleading: The salt itself is toasted, often with black pepper or five-spice powder, then rubbed on the ribs to marinate for an hour or two (at least classically). For frying, a cornstarch and egg batter is used to coat the ribs, which, in this case, were more like petite pork chops — a huge mound of petite pork chops. (Phoenix is very generous with its portions.) They tasted just enough of five-spice and were adequately succulent, but we would have appreciated a cracklier crust (having been ruined by the fish) and more of the promised heat.

As a green accompaniment to all of this, Michelle had nixed our suggestion of snow-pea shoots, claiming they were out of season and tough. In their place she offered baby (almost illegally so) bok choy simply steamed with garlic. Nearly too cute to eat, the brilliant greens provided a perfect counterpoint to the fried foods — though I admit to adding roasted garlic oil, dark soy, and a few pepper flakes to the leftovers I took home and reheated.

Despite Michelle’s admonitions regarding my familiarity (or lack thereof) with salted fish, I also took home a hot pot of it with diced chicken and tofu, just as a challenge. She was right to ask, as it turns out; the dish verged on being too salty-fishy for this taster, but was saved by a generous amount of bland, silky tofu, slivers of ginger, and the relatively neutral chicken. Once was enough, however; next time I’ll try the mushroom with sea cucumber and duck feet. Just kidding, dining companions.

Next time I’ll also bring my own beverage as there’s neither wine nor beer to be had. Think rieslings, chenins, even rosés. And take this final bit of advice from Michelle (who offered to cook Szechuan for us the next time we came in): “Once after drink drive carefully.”


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