Com Tam Thuan Kieu

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.

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Maisen Katsu

Whether it’s German schnitzel, Mexican milanesa, or Italian parmigiana, many of the world’s culinary traditions incorporate a dish made of thinly cut meat that is breaded and then fried to yield a contrast between a crunchy crust on the outside and tender meat on the inside. Japan is no different with its katsu, usually made with panko bread crumbs encasing a flat piece of pork or chicken. In the food court at H Mart in the Mesa Asian District, Maisen Katsu celebrates katsu by serving hearty platters of crisp, breaded meat, as well as appetizers, sides, and noodles.

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Snowtime

In the summer of 2002, H Mart, the Korean-American grocery chain, finally arrived in Mesa’s Asian District after years of speculation and delay. Like most H Mart locations, the Mesa store features a food court full of Korean food, offering everything from kimchi fried rice to tofu soups. With six stalls devoted to savory entrees, the limited room remaining is allocated to desserts. One option is a bakery, and the other is a locally based shop devoted to frozen treats. Snowtime, named for its signature shaved ice dish, offers snow and more to follow a meal.

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The Stone Korean Tofu House

The stereotype of Korean food in America often involves BBQ, the concept of unlimited quantities of beef cooked at a tabletop grill. It’s a tradition that maps easily to our big appetites for red meat, but it’s far from the totality of Korean cuisine. Korea’s food traditions involve soybeans as much as they do animal protein, and in the Mesa Asian District, the Stone Korean Tofu House devotes itself specifically to a tradition of tofu, not so much as a meat substitute, but instead as an ingredient to be used side-by-side with meats and seafood in complex dishes.

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Happy Bao’s

Over the past two decades, Mesa’s Asian Business District has grown from a few scattered shops to a busy corridor, and one shopping center, Mekong Plaza, has been at the center of the growth. The former Target store, now an Asian-themed plaza full of restaurants and stores, is now joined by the H Mart across the street, Arizona International Marketplace down the road, and even plans for its own expansion. Even so, Mekong Plaza itself still has plenty of hidden corners to explore. One of them is a tiny restaurant by the food court known as Happy Bao’s.

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Tea Avenue

Tea is a beverage that has been enjoyed in one form or another for thousands of years. Ever since the first leaves were mixed with boiling water in ancient China, tea has become popular around the world, not only in neighboring lands, but also in the European nations that colonized much of Asia. With millennia of tradition behind the drink, it might be tempting to view tea as beholden to immutable tradition. Tea’s heritage is important, but the beverage continues to evolve with new flavors, techniques, and blends served at modern shops like Mesa’s Tea Avenue. Continue reading “Tea Avenue”

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House

Even before the 2020 pandemic started to make crowded kitchens a source of concern, the restaurant industry, especially the fast food aspect of it, was embracing robotics and automation. At the same time, some places have gone in the opposite direction by stressing a hand-crafted aspect of their food, even in ways that are somewhat silly (e.g. “hand-dipped” ice cream). At Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House, the hand-crafted origin of its signature product is authentically and meaningfully reflected in the restaurant’s name and menu. Continue reading “Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House”

Heng’s Kitchen

Almost every mall food court is guaranteed to have one stall serving Chinese food (or an Americanized approximation of it). Often, it’s an outpost of the big chain that is threatening to sue a local enterprise over its name. Sometimes, it’s an independent operation that is locally owned but still adheres to a menu of American Chinese crowd pleasers like General Tso’s chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, all served from steam trays. When a mall specifically caters to a clientele of east Asian ancestry, though, chances are the food court experience will differ. Continue reading “Heng’s Kitchen”

Roll Avenue

Ice cream is one of those foods that has a specific place of origin but has been embraced throughout the world, often with distinct variations for specific countries. The earliest ice cream is thought to have been created in the ancient Persian empire, but the frozen dessert is now consumed on every continent, even in cold environments like Antarctic bases. A much warmer place, Thailand, is responsible for the innovation known as rolled ice cream. Also called stir-fried ice cream, this trend has taken hold in cities like Boston and Los Angeles in recent years. Continue reading “Roll Avenue”

Thai Spices

With a name like “Mekong Plaza,” it would be easy to assume the shopping center in west Mesa is all about Vietnamese retail and dining. The Mekong River is best known for its delta in the southernmost reaches of Vietnam near Saigon, but the reality is that the Mekong River flows through six nations on its way from Tibet to the South China Sea. Among those countries is Thailand, so it should not be surprising to see a little Thai food inside Mekong Plaza. Filling that niche is Thai Spices, which serves exactly the type of food described in its name. Continue reading “Thai Spices”

Hue Gourmet

There’s one sure way to tell when any nation’s cuisine has become mainstream in the United States: It occurs the moment the cognoscenti start differentiating between the cuisines of the country’s various regions. With Italian food, those distinctions have existed for decades. Popular “red sauce” Italian has its roots in immigrant traditions from Sicily and southern Italy, while northern Italian fans might celebrate risotto and osso bucco. The same has happened more recently with Chinese restaurants branching out beyond familiar Cantonese classics. Continue reading “Hue Gourmet”

Wholly Grill

Ask most people in the United States what constitutes Asian food, and they’ll likely begin with the cuisines of China and Japan. More recently, diners have been eager to embrace Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean food, but the cooking of the nearby Philippines has yet to gain much traction beyond those who grew up with it. Maybe it’s the prevalence of tart flavors or the generous use of vinegar in many dishes, but Filipino food remains under-appreciated in much of the United States, despite the half century the Philippines was under American rule. Continue reading “Wholly Grill”

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