Apache Boulevard in Tempe is best known for its Middle Eastern restaurants, but there’s more to the redeveloping street than just falafel and hummus. The food of southwest Asia (Iran, Lebanon, etc.) is balanced by an outpost of southeast Asian cooking. Khai Hoan, a small restaurant serving Vietnamese and Chinese dishes, adds some variety to the stretch of Apache between the Dorsey / Apache and McClintock / Apache light rail stations. Although the restaurant is almost exactly halfway between both platforms, the walk is more pleasant from Dorsey.
|cha gio (egg rolls)|
Khai Hoan is hidden in the corner of a strip mall on the south side of Apache. The small dining room, recently redecorated but still sparse, is tightly packed with two-tops on one side, four-tops on the other, and tables for larger groups in the middle. There are a few seats on a small patio, but those are a waiting area rather than an extension of the dining room. One of the chairs is often occupied by a neighborhood gentleman sipping cafe sua da, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. The railing at the end of the patio can serve as an improvised bike rack.
Despite the minimalist setting and decor, the restaurant draws a steady crowd, particularly at lunch. It is not uncommon at peak times to be asked to share one of the large tables with another party. Don’t be shy; the long, communal tables are half the fun of a meal at Khai Hoan. In fact, sometimes tablemates are the best sources of recommendations about which dishes to order. Expect a diverse crowd of ASU students, workers from nearby offices, and families with kids. The atmosphere is so casual and unpretentious that it would be hard to feel unwelcome.
|patio and improvised bike rack|
Among the Vietnamese and Chinese starters, it’s the rolls that seem most popular. Cold goi cuon rolls are available in three varieties: a standard version with whole shrimp and julienne pork, a version with just beef or shrimp, and a meatless version with strips of tofu inside. The egg rolls, or cha gio, are served fresh from the fryer, nice and hot with a crisp exterior and a ground meat filling. With all types of rolls, expect a huge plate full of lettuce leaves, sprigs of fresh herbs, slices of pickled vegetables, and a bowl of nuoc cham, or sweet fish sauce, for dipping.
|pho tai nam (pho with rare and well-done beef)|
When it comes time to choose a main course, a quick glance around the restaurant will show two trends: First, almost none of the customers order the Chinese food. There’s nothing wrong with it, but kung pao shrimp is probably on the menu mostly to comfort the timid eater who might be the veto vote in a group of friends or coworkers dining out. Second, the majority of customers order pho, the celebrated rice noodle soup of Hanoi, or various other Vietnamese soups served steaming in big bowls accompanied by equally generous plates full of fresh garnishes.
Among the 10 varieties of pho, all hit the nose first with the aromas of star anise and cinnamon. There are numerous beef versions on the menu, ranging from the basic model with sliced beef — rare, well-done, or both — to more formidable choices with tendon and tripe. Chicken pho is on the menu, as is a meatless (although not vegetarian) pho loaded with vegetables and tofu. The seafood version is a little disappointing, though. The shrimp it contains are perfectly good, but the “crab meat” in the description is really “krab,” the white-and-red streaked imitation product.
|bun rieu (shrimp and crab noodle soup)|
Crab lovers can find the real deal, however, in bun rieu, a specialty soup of shrimp and ground crab meat in a broth with tomato. Shrimp appear on the menu not only in their whole form, but also minced and shaped into cakes that are then sliced and placed atop bun dishes featuring thin rice vermicelli noodles in a dry form with shallots, peanuts, and scallions. It’s all served over a bed of lettuce with fish sauce on the side. Com tam dishes take the same approach, but substitute broken grains of rice for noodles as the main carbohydrate in the dish.
|bun chao tom cha bo nuong (bun with shrimp cake, egg roll, and grilled beef)|
A small sign toward the back of the dining room displays specials. These seldom change from one day to another, but they’ve yet to migrate to the printed menu. Bahn xeo is an expansive crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. The other special, bun cha ga, is a soup of rice noodles and fish cakes flavored with dill, along with vegetables such as lotus root. This soup has a distinctive flavor best not drowned in condiments. The accompanying plate of greenery has familiar bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeños but forgoes basil to avoid herbal overload.
|bun cha ga (noodle soup with fish cakes)|
About the only item that fans of Vietnamese food are likely to miss at Khai Hoan is bahn mi, a type of sandwich that pairs Vietnamese flavors with crusty baguettes reflecting the French colonial influence in southeast Asia. No alcohol is served, but the house-made lemonade, with or without club soda, and the fresh-squeezed orange juice are equally effective at quenching thirst and extinguishing heat. There’s little in the way of dessert, but it’s easy to walk to the other end of the building to purchase one of the myriad varieties of baklava available at Haji-Baba.
|com tam chao tom bo nuong (shrimp cake and grilled beef over broken rice)|
Khai Hoan is a bargain, with nothing on the menu priced at more than $10, and is open every day except Sunday. The restaurant adds to the international diversity of Apache Boulevard but stays comfortably within the street’s economical price range and casual feel. It’s also among the assets that make the recently improved Hudson Manor neighborhood of Tempe, located just south of the restaurant, attractive. Between meals of shawarma and tabouleh at nearby Middle Eastern places, Khai Hoan offers a refreshing break for food from the other side of Asia.
1537 E Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
Dorsey / Apache Station