For the past ten years, the Dobson Road corridor in Mesa and Chandler has been the scene of explosive growth in Asian restaurants and groceries. Most recently, the trend has been toward regional Chinese cooking with the opening of several eateries that specialize in food traditions from corners of China less familiar to American diners. At the same time, several restaurants devoted to Cantonese fare, the style of Chinese food best known in the United States, have closed after decades in central Phoenix, perhaps suggesting that Cantonese food is in decline.
It’s therefore ironic that one of the few holdouts keeping alive the Cantonese flame remains right at the heart of Dobson’s Asian strip. Asian Cafe Express (ACE), one of earliest harbingers of Dobson’s current identity, has been around since 2005, when it was founded by a chef known previously for his cooking at the Gourmet House of Hong Kong, Over a decade later, his current restaurant still serves low-priced, generously portioned Cantonese classics even as places devoted to everything from northern Chinese noodles to Korean fried chicken open nearby.
Asian Cafe Express is located in a shopping center right across the street from the Sycamore / Main light rail station in west Mesa. It has been one of the few stable occupants of a retail space that is still awaiting a new anchor tenant despite persistent hopes that a Korean grocery will enliven the plaza. Without a marquee store, this shopping center hasn’t had a lot of love lately Specifically, that means no bike racks. The closest are found across the street at the Sycamore / Main transit center, which may itself be the site of intensive redevelopment in the years to come.
Despite the “express” in its name, ACE is a full service restaurant, albeit an extremely casual one. Customers typically select their own seats and can choose from booths on three sides of the dining room or larger tables in the center. Once seated, diners are handed a voluminous menu in a binder. Its myriad pages contain over 300 items, many of them variations on themes with sauces and ingredients repurposed in different configurations. Selected menu items are highlighted in photographs on the restaurant’s walls, and specials are announced via Instagram.
With so many choices, it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s helpful to understand the key sections of ACE’s menu. Up front is a relatively brief section known as “AZ Style.” This is the most unabashedly Americanized aspect of ACE, and it’s full of familiar American Chinese fare such as sweet-and-sour pork and shrimp lo mein, as well as a few items that aren’t even particularly Chinese in their origin, including teriyaki chicken. This part of the menu is also home to ACE’s ultimate bargain, its rice bowls, which feed one person for just five dollars.
The far more extensive Hong Kong style menu has some rice plates that are suitable for dining alone, but for the most part, it is based on sharing and delves into the cuisine of Hong Kong and southern China. Some classic appetizers like pork egg rolls and vegetable spring rolls, both fresh and crisp, appear in both places, but for the most part there’s some differentiation. Look a little deeper in this area to find alternative starters such as a spicy cold chicken dish or even an appetizer of turnips with pork skins, as unlikely as that combination might seem at first.
Soups appears in two sections, one devoted to pairings such as seafood and tofu, and the other just for Hong Kong noodle soups, ranging from the familiar wonton noodle combination to more adventurous choices with ingredients like beef tripe and preserved pickle. There’s also an entire section devoted to congee, the mildly seasoned rice porridges that serve as a sort of east Asian comfort food. Hot pots are another option for meals-in-a-bowl with components like bitter melon and beef or eggplant and spare ribs cooked and presented in a single deep vessel.
Seafood is abundant on the menu, with plenty of shrimp dishes in which prawns are accessorized with Chinese sauces and vegetables. Fish fillets of mild sea bass are enlivened with ingredients such as yellow leaks and bean sprouts or ginger and green onions. Whole fish dishes are prepared with tilapia, which is fried and then matched with a sauce. For more choices, ACE offers a bring-your-own-fish option. Customers can bring their freshly purchased seafood, usually from the nearby Mekong Supermarket, and have it prepared for them.
Noodle dishes fill an entire page in myriad variants. Highlights include the chow fun, with wide ribbons of rice noodles stir-fried at high heat with meat or vegetables. The beef version is the classic, but any of these exhibit the desired “wok hei,” a phrase that translates as roughly “breath of the wok” and describes the complex, smoky flavor that chow fun attains when it is expertly prepared. Likewise, the dishes made with much thinner rice vermicelli, especially the Singapore style noodles seasoned with curry powder, exhibit equal levels of nuance.
There are many more facets of ACE’s menu to explore, including Chinese beef stew with braised, rather than stir-fried, meat and Portuguese chicken, which originated in Macua, another colonial enclave near Hong Kong. The only noticeable omissions are desserts and drinks. There are some tea and boba beverages, but no alcohol. This is a no-frills place for sure, but with seemingly endless choices of Cantonese food. Food from other regions of China may be taking hold elsewhere on Dobson, but in this one spot, classic Hong Kong favorites are still in style.
1911 W. Main St. #3, Mesa AZ 85201