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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


Very cool write-up. I don't think I've ever been to a hot pot place in the US before. I've always wondered if it didn't lend itself as well to dining in the States. When I think of hot pot, I think of lazing about in a chair talking for hours while enjoying your food. You drop a few pieces of raw meat and pull it out after a bit of chatting; then you might not drop more meat again for ten minutes. Thirty minutes into it, someone drops a few plump delicious mushrooms in and everyone eyes them greedily, staking claim to one while it's still in the pot and ready to chopstick war the heck out of the person next to you if they try to encroach. Another half hour and the rice noodles are dropped, swimming in the unbelievably rich and flavorful broth. I could go on and on, but I'm losing focus here. Point is, I always felt dining in the US to be more of a "here is your food, thank you for dining with us". It's the whole dividing things up into appetizer, entree, dessert: it's always made me feel like we're on a timeline. Even fondue places like that big chain whose name I'm blanking on (the closest to hotpot I've had in the States ... it was not yummy at all) divide up into those familiar eating "timezones". I'm not saying that service isn't good here in the US, I'm just saying that it seems like the Asian hotpot would be a very different experience when transformed into the style of dining here. Maybe this isn't the case at all at Tien Wong.

Also, I can absolutely see where you're going with the sauce issue. Coming from a family who did (and still does) hot pot for a large majority of holiday dinners I can confirm that the condiments are critical. We'll have maybe half as many sauces out as items in the pot. Sweet little orange sauces, spicy garlicy ground condiments whose flavor you release by dabbing sesame oil and soy over it, your standard vinegar and soy, and of course my dad's special mixture to name a few (though I couldn't truly 'name' any of them in English). So I don't think it's hyper-picky to be upset at something like this at a hotpot restaurant.

Dom, I am a huge fan of hot pots so it pains me that this hot pot place does not serve traditional hot pot sauces in accordance to the soup base itself. I'm actually not a HUGE fan of shabu shabu (i'm not a fan of the sauce really) so I always ask for chinese BBQ and soy sauce when I go out for hot pot. To me, I like the big bold flavors to dunk my meat in. Actually talking about it now is making me hungry. The mild soup base you're referring to seems to be of the herbal variety. I'm from SF and there's a place called Little Sheep that serves really good herbal hot pot.

Actually, for me, the best hot pot places have sauces out there for you to make yourself. (they also have a pot of house sauce for those less inclined to venture into the sauce buffet line) The sauce is, afterall, at least 40% of the meal. I personally prefer BBQ sauce, soy, egg yolk, lots of scallions, lots of garlic, some peanut sauce, some chive sauce...

Anyway, the place does sound like a diamond in the rough. Hot pot places always make me happier than most restaurants. And, you're right, it's always a joyous occasion and should be enjoyed with many people. Cheers!

Strikes me as an interesting pan-Asian concept. Maybe those are common in cities where I haven't lived, but I'm used to the one country-per-place approach. In L.A. we had Japanese shabu shabu style, in S.F., there were a couple Chinese, and here in DC there's an endless number of Korean hot pot places.

Not saying a place can't do all of them well (and it sounds like this one also modernizes the concepts slightly, which is harder to do in a traditional place without riots starting), but I can't say I've see that kind of Pan-Asia approach in hot pot, only in other dishes.

Thanks for the write up Dom. I'm building a list of places to try, or not, the next time we're in AZ.

I've had hot pot in NYC, but couldn't discern whether I was simply not appreciate the style or whether something was just a bit off about the experience. Your discussion of the sauces is interesting. I think sauces are often discounted, as you said, as mere condiments. However, with Thai food, for instance, I find the sauces and peppers that accompany the meal can make or break my enjoyment. I guess the problem is a bad sauce can either enhance or taint an otherwise flavorful dish.

I also like your comment about people getting the food its city deserves. I feel that way about DC. While the city has become somewhat of a hotspot for renown or up-and-coming chefs, I find that the expectations (read palates) of a lot of diners in the area are still set too low. Knowing that, I think a lot of places punt and serve to the masses, which I see as the lowest common denominator. I guess my gripe is that when I eat so-called "ethnic" cuisine. I want it to be authentic and not dumbed-down. I recently wrote a blog piece about not being served the same food at ethnic restaurants as those of the same ethnicity as the restaurant owners. That drives me nuts. Ok...sorry for the rant.

Now I'm craving some hot pot. Oh...were to go?

Matthew... I don't mind creative "ethnic" food when the traditional stuff is already well-represented and somebody wants to do something different and interesting. But it drives me CRAZY when the only game in town is neo-Asian. It's like jumping straight to the 300 level courses. (Bad, bad simile. Didn't mean to suggest that neo-Asian is somehow more advanced, just that you need to understand the fundamentals before you can mess with them successfully.) You have to learn the fundamentals first, not just as a chef, but also as a diner!

Your last comment may be the heart of the matter, Dom. I suspect that if they don't live in a town with strong and diverse Asian communities, many Americans wouldn't know to expect different sauces for different broths. And, more importantly from the restauranteur's viewpoint, don't know to look for them or try them. Putting out sauces that don't get used is pouring money down the drain.

Let's be fair, Dom, sometimes "Neo-Asian" is remedial Asian. The same people who like P.F. Chang think bad Neo-Asian is genius. I don't think of Neo-Asian or pan-Asian as being any more advanced than traditional. In fact, sometimes I'm looking for the traditional. (Random aside, a Japanese client of mine loved the "modern" sushi at a place in NYC where they used jalapeno instead of wasabi. He thought it was genius.)

Matthew, let's not completely diss us DC-area foodies. Sure, there are more than our share of idiots who think the quality of the meal is based solely on the size of the steak, but within the last 10 years there have been quite a few outstanding and sophisticated restaurants.

"Let's be fair, Dom, sometimes "Neo-Asian" is remedial Asian."

Of course. Didn't mean to imply otherwise. I just mean that I'm not by any means a staunch traditionalist. If you want to do something different, as long as it's different and good, I'm 100% for it.

And jalapeno instead of wasabi for sushi *is* genius. I give full marks to whoever did it first. Nobu's probably the one to credit with popularizing it, but I'm pretty sure he picked it up down in Peru.

Another great post. I definitely get your concerns but I'm happy Tien Wong is here. Though I'm 1/2 Chinese ancestry (my dad emigrated from China himself), I never had hot pot before. I don't think it's a bit thing in Cantonese cuisine. My family and even my dad really enjoyed it. I have been a long, long time shabu shabu addict though and have exhorted folks who own a couple shabu shabu location in OC to expand here. If that happened, we'd definitely be regulars there.

I get what you are saying about the sauces as they are definitely no standard ponzu & goma-su but it still addresses an unscratched itch for me. I actually really enjoy the mild broth as it was amazing to drink after a night of cooking. I think you felt that the sauces clashed least with this so maybe I'm missing the full extent of the problem. I tried the spicy and get how there is no compliment there but that was the only other.

I find the combination of concepts kind of fun too. Normally my bent is 100% authentic narrow focused concepts but for some reason I enjoyed the variety at Tien Wong.

I wish I could remember the name of the place but it wasn't Nobu. This was pre-Nobu, and I've eaten at Nobu. (Someday, I'll let loose my Shatner-Priceline-Nobu story.) It was one of those great food moments. Japanese client living in NYC suggests dinner and dinner is sushi. I love sushi but thought it predictable. Client says its largely wasabi free. At first, I wonder if he thinks this is a horrible sin. He approves, so I approve, and loved it. Thank you AmEx Corporate card.

My knock on remedial Asian was that you said Neo-Asian was the 300 level, and I've had enough fusion=confusion that I had to step up for traditional. But, I love the new stuff too. There's a dumpling bar in DC that's nominally Thai, but serves Chinese sticky buns filled with Thai curry. #awesome.

"My knock on remedial Asian was that you said Neo-Asian was the 300 level..."

Oh, yeah, I suppose that does imply that neo-Asian is somehow inherently more complex or advanced, huh? Not my intention. Bad simile. I just meant that you aren't going to succeed with the latter unless you first understand the former.

I figured as much that you didn't mean it that way. I had a neo-Spanish meal in Salamanca once that was great, but clearly my lack of depth of knowledge on Spanish cuisine meant I didn't quite get the cleverness until later when I researched the meal. Good is good, though.

Still think this is a neat concept: all hot pot, multiple cultural groundings.

Anon Man... if they'd pulled it off, it would have been completely, utterly kickass. But as it is, it seems like there's an awful lot of misdirected effort involved.


Yeah, hot pot doesn't seem to be a big thing in the south. Though I remember about six or seven years ago, there was a huge explosion of hot pot places in Shenzhen. But that was more of an urban trend than a cultural norm.

As for the sauces, again, I don't mind if they're not traditional as long as they're good. The sesame isn't. And as a pair, they're really only appropriate for the miso broth. Maaaaaybe the mild Chinese broth, but that's a stretch. It's not a break from tradition that I mind. It's a break from tradition that results in food that just isn't as good. There's a lot right, but again, to me Tien Wong commits two cardinal sins... 1) Breaking with tradition is fine, but have a good reason, and 2) Don't do more... do less, and do it better.

The funny thing is that I kind of arrive at the same place as you, though by a very, very different road. I'm glad they're here, and I'll continue to go back, and I hope they make it. But I don't ever want to be complacent and embrace "better than nothing" as an acceptable standard. I think the difference between us here is that for you it scratches the itch. For me, it intensifies it, but I can't help myself because I so desperately want it to be better.

@Dom - I want to try traditional Asian food (or food of any particular cuisine), not Americanized versions. Even if the ingredients and flavors are unusual to my palate and are an acquired taste, I want the chance to experience authentic dishes. I find that so-called Neo-Asian or Asian fusion is just some not necessarily 300-level. In fact, I find that a lot of the neo-Asian food is just a mish-mash of various concepts, with little or none of it executed very well.

@Anon Man - I wasn't completely writing off DC diners. My point was merely that a lot of people -- not all -- still are a sucker for marginal food. That is changing, though, and it's a good thing. We may have to meet up sometime. You can introduce me (and Carla) to that dumpling bar. Scott Drewno does a very good job with neo-Asian cuisine at The Source.

"I find that so-called Neo-Asian or Asian fusion is just some not necessarily 300-level. In fact, I find that a lot of the neo-Asian food is just a mish-mash of various concepts, with little or none of it executed very well."

Agreed. Not always, but probably even usually. Okay, this is driving me nuts. Need to change it.

Matthew, I've heard many good things about Source, but haven't had the chance to go (3 year old kid and dining out not always compatible.) My personal favorites in the area in no particular order are Eve Tasting Room(Old Town) and Obelisk. 2941 (Falls church) has made a nice resurgence with its new very French chef and menu, and I have a strange love for Corduroy, with its somewhat hodge-podge menu, largely because the service there is exceptional in a town known for horrible service. (I'm excluding some of the other excellent restaraunts that usually make the list which do live up to expectations (Komi, CityZen, MiniBar, etc.)

The Dumpling Bar is in Bangkok Joe's in Georgetown. There's a restaurant, and a 6-8 seat dumpling bar. The dumpling bar has some traditional items and some interesting, fusion items, and they rotate. You can find the menu here:


The panang bun is neat, the shu mai is fairly traditional, but adds crab to the pork, and if you're a dumpling whore like I am, the lobster pot stickers are great. Are they the greatest dumplings I've ever had? No, that's a place in the inner Richmond in San Francisco. But for a city with pretty mediocre Asian food scene, its a fun change of pace, and if you know the basic concepts, the combinations are cool twists. Plus, its a bar. You sit, have a cocktail and watch them make them heat and plate your order(s).

Disclaimer: I used to work in that building and haven't eaten there in 4 years, so I can't vouch for the continued quality, but at the time, I loved it, maybe just because as a diplaced Californian, even mediocre Asian is hard to come by here, with the exception of Vietnamese and Korean.

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