For the past five years, 19th Avenue might be classified as Phoenix’s on-again-off-again street. Construction to extend light rail north to Dunlap was supposed to begin just a few months after the starter line to Christown opened in late 2008. As sales tax revenue declined, that project was postponed. Now, with the economy in a tentative recovery, the northwest extension of light rail is finally being built. During all the uncertainty about when the train would actually arrive, some small businesses have endured. One of those is Wahsun, a no-frills Chinese restaurant.
Wahsun occupies a small space in a shopping center on the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and Northern, just up the street from that intersection’s future light rail station. The plaza is most easily identified by its anchor tenants Sprouts and Bookmans. In a smaller building to the right of those stores, look for Wahsun. One bike rack is situated in front of the hobby shop next door, and a better one is found in front of Bookmans. There are signs in the window advertising popular menu items, but they give little indication of the varied, complex, and flavorful food served inside.
Speaking of inside, there’s virtually no decor at Wahsun. It’s a plain dining room. There are a few circular tables with Lazy Susans in the center and smaller two-tops around the edge. This is a family-run restaurant with informal but efficient and friendly service. There are two menus. One features a dozen or so American Chinese favorites in combo meals. Those are fine, but make sure to ask for the “other menu” if it’s not provided. That’s where the real action is in terms of Chinese food, most of it Cantonese, with heavy reliance on seafood, fresh produce, and roasted meats.
To start, either the egg rolls, from the Americanized menu, or pot stickers, from a sign on the wall, will do. Sure, both are American Chinese staples you’ve eaten dozens of times before, but Wahsun prepares them both uncommonly well. The egg rolls are huge; expect a plate of four asteroids, each one stuffed not with the common assortment of ground meat and minced vegetables, but instead whole shrimp, pieces of chicken, and large slices of produce. The pot stickers are simpler, relying on a straightforward meat filling. A slight char on the outside of each dumpling yields to a tender interior.
There’s also wonton soup with a chicken broth full of meat-filled pockets and abundant bunches of baby bok choy. The two menus are really just a list of suggestions, however. The kitchen will prepare some off-menu dishes, and the front of the house will even suggest them at times. Flounder with yellow chives is listed on the Chinese menu, for example, but if the kitchen is out of that vegetable with grassy leaves and a garlicky taste, expect an offer to cook the same fish with asparagus. All these variations make produce as prominent as meat while skimping on neither.
|flounder with asparagus|
Other seafood offerings include live crab or lobster when available, numerous shrimp dishes, and a seafood tofu hot pot full of shrimp, scallops, and pieces of fish along with bean curd and a variety of fresh vegetables. Shrimp with green beans is a simple, effective dish with generously sized prawns stir fried with crisp, long pods that have acquired a slightly smoky taste. Wahsun is consistent in capturing “wok hei” (breath of the wok), an important concept in Cantonese cuisine based on the interplay of a hot wok, oil, and the ingredients being cooked.
|seafood tofu hot pot|
There’s plenty of wok breath in meatless dishes as simple as gai lan, also known as Chinese broccoli. Expect a plate full of thick stalks, delicate florets, whole cloves of garlic, and a dark sauce full of flavor from soy sauce and hot oil. Elsewhere on the menu, a combination of bok choy and black mushrooms is a successful mix of crisp and chewy textures, earthy flavors, and a bit of blackening from intense wok heat. The smoky element also adds another dimension to meaty dishes such as dry-fried noodles with beef, often considered a benchmark dish in Cantonese restaurants.
|shrimp with green beans|
Salt and pepper shrimp come intact with shells and tails still on. Eat those parts you like, knowing that keeping the crustaceans whole during cooking helps prevent the meat on the inside from overcooking or becoming too dry. Walnut shrimp often surprises diners who aren’t used to mayonnaise in Chinese cooking, but Wahsun’s version doesn’t taste anything like a picnic salad. Instead, the prawns emerge with a gentle sweetness and a crisp coating. As such, this dish is an effective counterbalance to sharper tastes such as those found in beef with bitter melon.
The serving sizes here are generous. If you stick to a shared appetizer or two followed by one entree per person in order to have a variety of tastes spinning around the table, leftovers will be inevitable. Fortunately, the prices at Wahsun will usually leave some leftover cash (the only form of payment accepted at the restaurant) in the wallet. With the exception of whole fish and live seafood, nothing exceeds $10. It’s likely you could visit Bookmans before dinner, trade in some unwanted media, convert the credit to cash, and have enough for almost anything on the menu.
|house fried rice|
While Wahsun offers copious portions of food at low prices, it doesn’t try to do much else. There’s no dessert on the menu, and beverage selections are limited to canned soda and tea. That doesn’t seem to matter much to Wahsun’s regular clientele, many of whom are greeted by name. A large portion of the restaurant’s business appears to be takeout, rumored to include free egg rolls, but for those who don’t mind the spartan surroundings, eating on site is worthwhile. Light rail is finally coming to 19th Avenue and Northern; excellent, inexpensive Chinese food is already there.
8056 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021