It was 45 years ago that Bert Lance, then serving as the Carter Administration’s budget director, popularized the folksy phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Since then, the slogan has settled into widespread use and is typically meant to tell people to leave well enough alone. Nevertheless, the words stop short of advising what should be done when something is already broke(n). In the Mesa Asian District, a Vietnamese restaurant known as Com Tam Thuan Kieu has answered that question by using broken grains of rice as the foundation of its distinctive menu.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu is situated inside Mekong Plaza, the former Target store converted into a predominantly Vietnamese and Chinese shopping center and one of the original players in the organic growth of what is now known as the Mesa Asian District. The restaurant is among those tenants that have been present from the beginning in 2008. After a quarter mile walk or bike ride from the Sycamore/Main light rail station, the restaurant can be found just to the right of the mall’s main entrance along the corridor that leads towards the Mekong Market grocery store.
While the restaurant has an outdoor entrance facing the parking lot, the main entry is inside the building. The restaurant’s compact space takes the form of an L-shaped dining room that wraps around a customer service counter and the kitchen. The walls are decorated with landscape paintings and illuminated with sconces, but otherwise there is little decor. Most of the tables look out on the busy foot traffic traversing the main lobby of Mekong Plaza on the way to and from the market. Several bike racks are located just outside the building’s multiple entrances.
In approaching the restaurant’s lengthy menu, the first tip for new customers is to dispense with any expectations of ordering pho. The popular rice noodle soup has become synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine for many Americans, but as wonderful as pho is, it is only one of many facets of a diverse set of food traditions with many regional variations. Besides, another restaurant across the hall already fills the pho niche perfectly well. Instead of longing for pho, it’s worth exploring the broken rice dishes, as well as noodle dish entrees of other types.
Appetizers include fried egg rolls and cold spring rolls in several configurations. The standard cha gio have a filling of ground, seasoned pork and crisp, coarse shells while other variations include shrimp fillings and a meatless version with julienned vegetables and tofu inside. The goi cuon are rolled in uncooked rice paper with noodles, vegetables, and meat fillings. One standout variation involves three shrimp layered over a long segment of pork sausage. All of the rolls come with fresh herbs and lettuce leaves for wrapping and side sauces for dipping.
The next section of the menu is devoted to the restaurant’s signature broken rice dishes. All of these involve the fractured grains paired with meats, pickled vegetables, fish sauce, and a bowl of pork broth for added moisture and taste. While broken rice may have traditionally been thought of as less desirable, its finer texture makes it ideal for absorbing flavors. For those with big appetites, the first entree listed, Com Tam Thuan Kieu 10 Mon, is a grand tour with a pork chop, multiple types of sausages, shrimp, and an egg among the rice’s many accompaniments.
For a more focused experience, the dishes appearing below it generally focus on one or two proteins plated with rice. Among those broken rice entrees, two favorites involve rectangular patties of ground shrimp wrapped in tofu skins and thin slices of grilled beef wrapped around sautéed onions. The list continues for nearly two pages with various combinations and configurations of meats listed as possible broken rice accompaniments, and a small a-la-carte section at the bottom offers the possibility of adding additional items to the plate as needed.
While the speciality here is clearly rice, there is also substantial space on the menu devoted to noodles. Rice vermicelli is used in bun dishes, in which a cold bowl of noodles is topped with meats, herbs, and peanuts. This is Com Tam Thuan Kieu’s version of a dish found at most Vietnamese restaurants; however, a more distinctive type of dish found here are the vermicelli patties, thin sheets of interlaced noodles topped with selected meats and vegetables. Soup entrees here include big bowls of egg noodles in pork-and-chicken broth or thick udon.
One type of soup that returns from noodles to fragmented grains of rice is porridge. Porridge in a Vietnamese context means a thick rice soup redolent of ginger and green onions, yielding a dish that is intensely flavorful although not intrinsically spicy. Chicken, beef, pork, or fish can be added to the bowl as desired. Additional menu categories include fried rice dishes in both a plain format and an alternative presentation seasoned with tomato paste. Finally, a vegetarian section of the menu adds possibilities like broken rice with tofu and julienned taro root.
The restaurant’s small selection of desserts focuses on Vietnamese sweets from a refrigerated case. A three-color dessert incorporates sweet mung beans, green jelly, crushed ice, and coconut milk in layers designed to be mixed at the table. There is no liquor license; however, fresh tea, limeade, and coconut juice are among the choices of liquid refreshment. With its frugal use of grain that might otherwise go to waste, Com Tam Thuan Kieu proves not only that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but also that sometimes even what’s broken can be delicious.
66 S. Dobson Rd. #141, Mesa AZ 85202