It’s a trend that’s been called “Chipotle-ization,” a type of restaurant service model in which customers proceed through a line telling staff along the way exactly how they’d like their meals made to their specifications. What the Chipotle chain has long done for burritos and tacos, countless new arrivals are now trying to do for pizza and even school lunches. At Mekong Plaza in west Mesa, a restaurant named Deer Garden Signatures (perhaps an awkward translation of a Chinese phrase) might be seen as a sort of Chipotle-ization of Asian noodle soups.
Deer Garden Signatures (to be identified hereafter as “DGS”) is accessible via the same entrance that leads to the Mekong Plaza food court. The restaurant has a door inside the building, as well as an exterior entrance near some prominent bike racks that are almost always full. Additional racks are found around the corner on the north side of the building. The Sycamore / Main light rail station a quarter mile to the east. If walking from the train, use a direct route via Main Street. If bicycling, use a calmer combination of Sycamore and First Avenue.
DGS has some small tables around the perimeter of the dining room, but most of the seating is at larger rectangular or circular tables. It’s a fairly crowded environment, and don’t be surprised if asked to share a table with another party during peak times. The look is generally a clean, modern, and simple one based on metal and glass. The windows that wrap around most of the triangular room don’t leave much opportunity for decor, but there are a few television screens mounted on the walls with Chinese-language programming playing most of the time.
DGS has two menus. One is laminated and displayed near the restaurant’s entrances. The other is on plain paper and given to each customer along with a marker for noting one’s selections. The two menus have the same content in terms of food and drink, but the presentation differs. The laminated menu has photographs of many items, making it easier for the first time visitor to visualize what he or she is about to order. The paper menu, however, is easier to follow with its step-by-step guidance about choosing broths, noodles, and toppings to create a custom soup.
To mark up the menu, begin by choosing a soup base. The six selections listed first are under the heading of “no MSG fish soup.” The original fish soup is a mild broth — not excessively fishy at all, but a solid foundation for any number of ingredient combinations. A more flavorful variation is the “tomatoes and pumpkins fish soup.” While there may indeed be more than one tomato in the broth, even the large bowls at DGS won’t hold more than one pumpkin. A minor typographical or translation error aside, it’s a good soup base when paired with a red meat protein source.
Under a second grouping of “other soup,” diners can find options from pickled cabbage fish soup to the most innocuous choice imaginable, chicken soup. Once a broth is selected, customers can also check which broth garnishes, such as tofu skin and cilantro, they wish to omit from their bowls. With the soup base established, the next step is to select a noodle. There are rice and egg noodles of varying shapes and thicknesses, thick and hearty udon, less familiar options such as “Korean style sweet potatoes crystal noodle,” and even the choice of plain white rice in the broth.
The final step is the selection of toppings from a matrix of choices. Some toppings such as sliced beef and white mushrooms are straightforward. Others, like pork blood, preserved egg, or winter melon are a bit more exotic. With all these options, just about anyone can put together a soup bowl to his or her liking, but there may also be times when so many choices become overwhelming. Anyone facing that dilemma can flip the paper menu over and find seven different pre-formatted soups, including Chinese restaurant classics like Hong Kong style wonton noodle.
For anyone who doesn’t want soup and is willing to wait for 25 minutes (the accurate preparation time listed on the menu), the clay pot meals are a viable alternative. The hot vessels arrive at the table full of white rice topped with combinations of ingredients like steamed chicken and black mushrooms or spare ribs with black bean sauce, as well as the ubiquitous bok choy. A small cup of fish broth on the side can be used to moisten the grains, and the layer of crunchy, semi-burnt rice at the bottom of the pot is a treat that makes finishing the entire portion worthwhile.
A few small meat and protein items are available as side dishes for a couple of dollars each. Choices include pan-fried chicken in teriyaki sauce, fish puffs that resemble little squares of tofu, and dessert (chicken) wings with ginger. These add-ons come in small portions suitable for sharing as sides dishes. For anyone who still hasn’t had enough bok choy, a side dish of that cruciferous vegetable is also available. Condiments at each table include soy sauce and sriracha. Since the soup bowls arrive with extensive customization, not much more should be necessary.
There are no desserts at DGS, but a complimentary milk tea provides a bit of liquid sweetness. Plain tea and coffee are also served at no cost, and canned sodas are available for purchase. Despite some similarly-named restaurants in Vancouver and the Toronto suburbs, staff at the Mesa DGS deny any Canadian connection. One day there may very well be a chain of make-your-own Asian noodle places, extending the trend beyond burritos and pizza, but visitors to Mekong Plaza can say they were the first to try the approach at Deer Garden Signatures.
66 S. Dobson Rd. #107, Mesa AZ 85201
Sycamore / Main Station