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February 24, 2011

Spice Cabinet

A Cry For Help Dominic Armato

At the intersection of culinary and organizational obsession.

February 21, 2011

Tien Wong

Ying Yang Broth Dominic Armato

I think it's safe to say that the news of Tien Wong's opening was the most exciting Phoenix restaurant news I got last year. I love Asian hot pot. And it's been one of the more gaping holes in Phoenix' array of ethnic foods. And, oh, by the way, they're open until midnight seven days a week. It was like a restaurant press release made just for me. So it should be known up front that I carry not only very high standards but also very high expectations into a place like Tien Wong. And I'm so much of two minds on the place that I barely know how to start.

Kurobuta PorkDominic Armato

The basics, of course, are that Tien Wong is an Asian hot pot place. You pick a broth, you order things to cook in the broth at your table, you dip what you've cooked into sauces, and generally sort of dip and dunk your way through cooking a meal at your table, finishing with a little hot soup from the pot that's been your cooking vessel, if you're so inclined. In true Johnny Chu fashion, Tien Wong provides sort of a hip take on Asian cuisine, not strictly traditional and minimally presented. It's a simultaneously comfortable and stylish joint, smartly designed on a budget. You've seen much of the decor at Ikea, but I don't for a moment mean that as a pejorative. Rather, it strikes me as a smart use of inexpensive fixtures during tough times. The tables are skewed towards larger groups (the best way to do hot pot, really), and an inset induction burner is never outside of easy arm's reach. The selection of foods is simultaneously one of Tien Wong's greatest strengths, and greatest weaknesses. Essentially, you have three components here: the broth, the ingredients, and the dipping sauces. And some fare better than others.

Japanese Miso BrothDominic Armato

The list of broths, on first glance, is suspiciously lengthy. There are seven different types available, borrowing from various Asian traditions, and my first thought is that quantity is often at odds with quality. I'd be thrilled with a place that did nothing but shabu shabu if they aced it (hell, I'd be happy with a so-so shabu shabu joint in this town). But after sampling four of the broths, I think it would be ungrateful to complain. Though a few ticks shy of stellar, the broths range from solid to very good, and a lot of care has obviously gone into their composition. Except for the vegetarian miso, they're all (I believe) based on the same pork stock, which is mild and clean and has enough depth to provide a nice flavor base without being overpowering about it. The Japanese Miso is Chu's angle on shabu shabu, and while I'd frankly be happier with plain old water and a sliver of kombu, I can't knock this variant. The miso's present but subtle, and it humbly references traditional shabu shabu without aping it. My traditional side scoffs, but my open-minded side can't argue with it as a change of pace.

IngredientsDominic Armato

The Thai Curry isn't the most sophisticated take on the genre, but it's perfectly tasty, moderately spicy and works particularly well as a soup if you ladle some out and sip it along with your dinner. The Ying Yang broth is a split pot offering two Chinese tastes, one mild one spicy, and they can also be ordered individually. I feel comfortable saying that the only reason to go the split pot route is either if some people in your group can't handle the heat, or if you plan on starting with the mild and progressing to the spicy. The latter completely blows out the former, so once you taste the spicy, you won't be tasting much of the mild. But both are very nice broths. The milky mild broth is laced with sweet and fragrant Chinese ingredients like ginger, ginseng, scallions, Chinese dates, longans, bay leaves, tiger lily buds... more that I'm missing, I'm sure. There's a lot going on, but it's very delicate and very well-balanced. I'd like the flavors to come out a little more, but I can't complain. The spicy broth is probably my favorite of the bunch, similarly well-balanced, but on the opposite end of the scale, fiery and bold, with much of the same as the mild broth plus a large handful of chiles, coriander, Sichuan pepper, and more. On both counts, I've certainly had better in Chinatown dives, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with what's offered here. I haven't yet sampled the Spicy Lemongrass (similar to a tom yum) or the Trieu Chau Satay (no idea), but I've had more than half, and they've all been solid.

Ingredient TicketDominic Armato

The ingredient list may be Tien Wong's greatest strength. It's huge, and almost everything I've tried has been well-sourced and wonderfully fresh. Like a sushi ballot, you're given a pencil and a ticket that's broken down into three sections: Mushrooms & Vegetables, Tofu & Noodles, and Meat & Seafood, each of which includes perhaps 15-20 selections. What I love is that they really run the gamut from newbie approachable to full-on challenging. If you want to stick to sliced beef, napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, they've got you covered. But if you're down with the tripe, head-on shrimp and congealed pork blood, you'll be equally happy with the offerings. There are also a few handwritten specials at the bottom that change from day to day, and I'm particularly thrilled by the fact that housemade fish balls seem to pop up from time to time, though of course never on the night when I was trying the right broth for it. My only complaints with the ingredients are twofold. First, that on a couple of occasions, the beef was, I suspect, way too far into frozen territory when it was sliced. It needs to be extremely cold to facilitate slicing so thinly, but when your Wagyu arrives shredded, that's not a good thing. Also, it would be nice if there were some options that were a little more friendly to solo diners. The various plates of greens are beautiful and bountiful, but unless you're prepared to eat your weight in vegetation, it's pretty much impossible to sample more than one item without letting most of it go to waste. It would be nice if a plate of assorted vegetables were made available -- even preselected -- not so much as a matter of cost (they're reasonably priced), but simply to make it possible to have a little variety without parking an entire produce department on your table.

Sauces and TofuDominic Armato

Good broths, great ingredients... what's the problem? What absolutely kills me about Tien Wong is that they get about 90% of the way there, and then completely blow it with something so critical. The sauce situation is a disaster, and doubly frustrating because everything else is so well done. When I order, say, the Japanese Miso broth, it comes with two sauces that are modern takes on traditional shabu shabu sauces. The first is a tart ponzu, kicked up in this case with a little chile and ginger. It's perfectly good. Chu's take on goma-su (sesame and vinegar sauce) is significantly less than good. It's way heavy on the vinegar, cloyingly sweet, seems like it might completely omit ground sesame in favor of sesame oil, and generally plays more like grocery store Asian sesame salad dressing than a quality hot pot dipping sauce. When I'm having the Japanese Miso, it makes me wish he'd resisted the urge to do everything, just opened a straight-up shabu shabu joint and done it right. But far more problematic is that when you get, say, the Thai Curry, you get the same two dipping sauces, which clash terribly with the broth. When you get the mild Chinese broth, you get the same two dipping sauces. In that case they're passable, but not really appropriate. In the case of the spicy Chinese broth, it absolutely kills me. The broth is great. But one thing about it is that it doesn't have the slightest hint of sweetness. Though a nice balance of spices, it's somewhat two-dimensional, and it needs just a little something to round it out. The sesame sauce adds some needed sweetness, but the flavor combination is all wrong. Heck, give me a raw egg and a tablespoon of canned Chinese BBQ sauce, and I'd be on cloud nine. But it gets so close to being very good, and then comes crashing down because of a very shortsighted and, I think, crippling decision not to give the same kind of attention to the sauces that's given to the other elements.

It makes me feel un-foody and lame to be harping on what are essentially condiments (if especially noble versions thereof when done well). But depending on which broth you get, I think it really does bring Tien Wong to a crashing halt. If you're into food, you know the feeling when a dish needs a critical element to bring it all together -- a specific herb, a little sweetness, a little acid, or whatever it might be. If that element is missing, the dish feels incomplete and unsatisfying. And that's why Tien Wong frustrates me so much. I taste lovely broths, I see piles of beautiful ingredients... and then I still leave vaguely unsatisfied. My instinct is to blame the fact that the restaurant tries to be every hot pot rather than one good one. The quality of the broths and ingredients work counter to that instinct, but why lavish so much attention on an extensive menu and then take a "yeah, whatever" approach to the finishing touches? At the risk of going stream of consciousness, I think about the fact that there's no place else to go for shabu shabu, there's no place else to go (as far as I know) for this kind of Chinese hot pot, and it seems like another instance of Phoenix trying to fly before it learns to walk. It would mean much more to the state of the city's food if Chu had simply chosen one of his styles of broth and done it perfectly. Striaght-up traditionally, even. I want to believe that a city this big could get behind a simple, good Chinese hot pot joint. Or I find myself wishing he'd just thrown some kombu into a pot of water, cut the ingredient list down to a couple of assorted plates (of similarly stellar quality), and made an absolutely killer ponzu and fresh goma-su. Then I'd be completely satisfied by one kind of hot pot rather than vaguely unsatisfied by many. The thing of it is, a city will get the food its diners deserve. I'm in my little food nerd bubble, and I don't have to worry about what people will buy. Chu knows more about what Phoenix diners want than I do. And these days, I find myself filled with food nerd angst, wondering if he's right. I wonder if we really don't care whether our dipping sauces make the hot pot taste better, so long as we have seven different types of hot pot to choose from.

Tien Wong Hot Pot
2330 N. Alma School Road
Chandler, AZ 85224
Mon - Sun4:00 PM - 12:00 AM