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, which also involves vinegar, the word was used to describe the Filipino technique. Now many variants of adobo exist in various former Spanish colonies around the world, 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 original crop of food stalls inside the DeSoto Central Market, the marketplace and community space situated 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 Japanese, a little Mexican, and a little bit of many other cuisines.
Adobo Dragon 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. Diners who arrive via bicycle can use racks in the shape of the state of Arizona on the patio. Adobo Dragon is right behind that patio, but getting from A to B involves walking through a door near Central Avenue, passing the bar, and then turning a corner near the staircase to reach the food court deep inside the building. Another entrance is found in an alley connecting Roosevelt and Garfield streets.
Like its 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. At Adobo Dragon, bao come two to an order. The beef bao add a Latin influence with ancho chile and cabbage. The pork buns cross boundaries by mixing carnitas with bleu cheese. Another pork bun, made with rib meat, introduces a tropical note with guava sauce and smoked tea. 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 half dozen 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 its original bao and bento offerings, Adobo Dragon has added a section to its menu devoted to noodle dishes. Curried noodles are thin rice sticks in a light Madras sauce with fresh mint and grilled prawns on top. Cold Thai noodles are the same pasta only in a chilled, salad-like preparation with edamame, kale, and a choice of meat or mushrooms. The restaurant’s approach to ramen is an international blend with one version including hominy to create a hybrid of ramen and posole, and another combining seafood, chorizo, and chicken into a paella-influenced noodle dish.
As an appetizer, Adobo Dragon offers campechana, a Mexican seafood cocktail with abundant prawns, bits of calamari, and a handful of mussels in a vivid tomato-based salsa and a generous serving of chips for scooping. In addition to that shareable dish, there are a few tapas such as wontons stuffed with carnitas, papas brava with chinese sausage and sambal aioli, a mushroom-filled vegetarian roll, and chicken wings in Thai chili sauce. All mix eastern and western influences in roughly equal proportions and with equally successful results.
Adobo Dragon also offers a few sides dishes, as well as simple children’s meals of chicken or beef bowls with 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 functions is to act 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.
915 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Roosevelt / Central Station