The word “adobo” comes up in describing food traditions everywhere from Spain to the Philippines. When Spanish explorers first reached the Philippines, they encountered a cooking process that involved stewing food in a vinegar-based sauce. Although distinct in its origins from Spanish adobo, the word was used to describe the Filipino technique. Of course, variants of Iberian adobo exist in various former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the western hemisphere, creating a network of vinegar and spice that extends across multiples continents and archipelagos.
With that convergence of flavor in mind, Adobo Dragon is the name of one of the first crop of food stalls to open inside the DeSoto Central Market, the new food hall recently opened in a former auto dealership at the north end of Downtown Phoenix. Adobo speaks to the restaurant’s blend of Asian and Latin influences. The dragon in the restaurant’s name not only reinforces the connection to Asia, but also evoke the generous use of spice throughout the menu. The result is a little Chinese, a little Filipino, a little Korean, a little Mexican, and a whole lot of interesting.
Adobo Dragon’s spot is right in the middle of the DeSoto food court. The front entrance to the market is diagonally across the street from the Roosevelt / Central light rail station, which also houses a Grid Bike Share station. Diners who arrive on their own bicycles can lock up against racks in the shape of Arizona on the patio facing Roosevelt. Adobo Dragon is right behind that patio, but getting from A to B involves walking through the door near Central Avenue, passing by the bar, and then turning a corner near the staircase to reach the hidden food court deep inside.
Like it neighbors, Adobo Dragon is a place where one orders at the counter. There are a few tall seats next to the cashier’s station where it’s possible to eat right in front of the kitchen, but most customers enjoy the food in the open dining areas on both floors of the DeSoto Central Market, as well as the patio during mild weather. If it’s not too busy, someone from the restaurant may bring your food to you. At peak times, it’s better to wait nearby, browse the market vendors who sometimes set up shop in the food court, and pick up the order as soon as it is prepared.
The signature item is bao, Chinese steamed buns. These are street foods in which a bread-like exterior contains a filling of meat or vegetables. At Adobo Dragon, bao come two to an order. The beef bao display a Korean influence through bulgogi and sesame seeds. The pork buns cross boundaries by mixing carnitas with bleu cheese. The chicken bao combine grilled poultry with mango salsa and South American chimichurri sauce. The fish buns contain salmon with tropical fruit and wasabi, and the vegetarian ones rely on mushrooms and bell peppers for substance.
The five varieties of bao can be combined to yield a combination lunch, and all of the bao dishes include a small side salad full of kale and edamame. For those who prefer rice to buns, Adobo Dragon also serves four bento boxes, each containing chicken, beef, fish, or vegetables next to rice, salad, and a bit of fruit. The meat bentos echo the same preparations as their bao counterparts, but the meatless bento brings an unexpected surprise with a hearty potato enchilada hiding beneath the other vegetables and a soy adobo sauce that is slightly tart and spicy.
Beyond a base in bao and bento, the third element in the Adobo Dragon is ceviche, offered in both fish and mixed seafood varieties. Both are marinated in aji amarillo, a chile that imparts a moderate level of heat and a yellow-orange color to the dish, and are served with fresh corn chips. In the six months since its opening, the restaurant has also started to branch out with weekly specials and an evening tapas menu. Recent featured entrees have included a bowl of ramen and a curry shrimp and rice stick noodles dish with a vinegar-tinged salad on the side.
At night, a selection of small dishes are featured. Some like, the albondigas, meatballs topped with a bit of avocado chimichurri, draw clearly from Latin American traditions. The vegetable roll, on the other hand, is clearly derived from Vietnamese cuisine and resembles goi cuon, the cold dish sometimes known as fresh spring rolls or summer rolls. Some, such as the papas brava with chinese sausage and sambal aioli or the chicken wings in Thai chili sauce, mix eastern and western influences in roughly equal proportions and with successful results.
Adobo Dragon also offers a big version of its side salad as a small entree, as well as simple children’s meals of chicken or beef over rice. That’s about the extent of a menu that wisely values depth of flavor and cross-cultural experimentation over an unlimited quantity of choices. Drinks are limited to a few bottled and canned items in a refrigerated case, but the entire DeSoto Central Market bar is just around the corner with its selection of beer, wine, and cocktails. Likewise, another vendor offers coffee, tea, and pastry as potential treats after a meal.
With its adventurous blends of Latin American and east Asian cuisine, the food currently served at Adobo Dragon is pleasing just as it stands today, but is also hints that bigger ambitions may be eventually attainable for chef and owner Allan Inocencio, who is often present at the front counter. One of the DeSoto Central Market’s potential roles is as a restaurant incubator. Maybe someday we’ll eat Adobo Dragon’s food in a full-service fusion restaurant, but for now just having the street version available in a food court environment is in itself a welcome development.
October 8, 2015 Update: Since the publication of this review, Adobo Dragon has augmented its menu with several noodle dishes, as well as a dessert.
915 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Roosevelt / Central Station