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March 28, 2011

Nee House

Sticky Rice with Asparagus and Lap Cheong Dominic Armato

Chinese in Phoenix has been a bit of a frustrating experience thus far.

It isn't that I haven't had some great dishes. I have. And it isn't that there aren't places that serve authentic Chinese. There are. It's just that I've yet to find a place that's consistently very good, less so from visit to visit and more so from dish to dish. It makes what's already a difficult search ten times so. I feel like I have to try a dozen dishes anywhere I go to suss out the strengths and weaknesses. So it is with Nee House. But the good news is that there are some significant strengths.

Hot Sour SoupDominic Armato

Falling squarely into the category of family-run strip mall ethnic joint, Nee House is right up my alley. A no-frills interior with pictures of house specials on the walls and a decorative fish tank up front, it nonetheless throws some odd mixed signals. The promotional materials classify the restaurant as featuring Cantonese, Mandarin and Sichuan, which is rarely a good sign. In my experience, rare is the Chinese restaurant that can truly do a good job with two regions, much less three. Such billing is often the sign of catchall Americanized Chinese, but in another example of Nee House's split personality, the menu features such pseudo-Chinese dishes as Crab Rangoon and Moo Goo Gai Pan, and a wide selection of Americanized standards that have authentic counterparts even if not prepared that way here, while still featuring a hefty catalog of rather authentic fresh seafood, including items like shark fin, jellyfish, abalone and sea cucumber. In fact, the seafood dishes comprise nearly half the menu, so between this and the four large tanks in a rear wall of the restaurant holding live lobsters, crabs and fish, it seemed safe to conclude that I'd do best to stick with Cantonese. So between that and a few Americanized standards for the little fella, who was my companion for most of these scouting trips, that what I ordered.

PotstickersDominic Armato

Soups have been passable, if unremarkable. I shouldn't be so happy that their hot sour soup derives its namesake from white pepper and black vinegar rather than sambal, but I'm so often disappointed by the appearance of the latter that it's refreshing to get one that's done right. Still, Nee House's is more functional than exceptional, scratching the itch for a time. The appetizers section is one that looks particularly Americanized, and the pan-fried potstickers are disappointing. The filling is nice, a delicately seasoned mix of finely shredded cabbage and chicken that's juicy and lightly sweet, a very homey mix that's still quite delicious. The wrapper is another matter entirely, almost certainly store-bought, thin, tough and dry. Too bad, as they might have been nice otherwise.

Snow Pea LeavesDominic Armato

A happy surprise is the mere presence of snow pea leaves, which are a particularly delectable little Chinese green. Dark green but sweet leaves spring from hollow and crisp shoots, here barely wilted with broth and garlic and perhaps a touch of ginger. Though their preparation doesn't get much simpler, the picking and sorting is a little labor-intensive, which may partially account for the surprising $14 price. But it's a rather large helping -- almost too much -- and they're difficult to resist. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've yet to explore the rest of the vegetable section, though they're mostly pretty conventional offerings like Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce and eggplant with garlic. Still, here's at least one indication that the kitchen knows how to handle them.

Mu Shu PorkDominic Armato

Mu Shu Pork kind of screams fun food for four-year-olds, so I introduced the little fella to the pancake-wrapped standard, which was a fully Americanized version, roughly chopped with bought-in though perfectly functional pancakes. Thin and a little clumsy, I see no reason to order it again, particularly since it missed its intended target. Sautéed Scallops with XO Sauce was somewhat less Americanized, simply by its nature, but was similarly disappointing. While the scallops were tender and sweet, there was no subtlety at all to the roughly-chopped vegetables. And the XO sauce, rather than being the potent blend of chiles and dried seafood that it can be when made well, seemed here to be a simple, flat brown sauce punched up with just a touch of XO. Unusual? Not really. But disappointing nonetheless.

Sallops in XO SauceDominic Armato

On the other hand, a strength of the menu seems to be fried rice, which is trickier to do well than commonly acknowledged. A version with flecks of salted fish and tender pieces of chicken hit on all points. The warm, light rice had the perfect texture with clearly defined grains, the flavors were balanced, particularly when it came to salt, and soy sauce was used with great restraint. Also, the oil was controlled perfectly, just present enough to carry the flavors and maintain the texture without getting slick and greasy. Across five visits, there's been a list of specials (in Chinese... I had to ask) only once, but included another fried rice, this time done with a larger grain sticky rice with asparagus and lap cheong, sweet Chinese sausage. It's a different beast to be sure, not the wet, steamed sticky rice that might arrive wrapped in lotus leaves, nor the light and tender type as featured the salty fish, but rather a larger grain with a denser, more toothsome texture, punctuated by the juicy sweetness of the sausage. Both lead me to believe that this kitchen knows what it's doing when tossing rice into a wok.

Salty Fish Fried RiceDominic Armato

A clear indication that we've yet to cover the menu's biggest strength, however, is plainly evident on the back wall of the restaurant. There, four large tanks are filled with live seafood. Though I'm unsure how this might change seasonally (all of my visits have been in the past couple of months), three of the tanks have always contained lobsters, bass and Dungeness crabs, and the fourth has had overflow from one of the first three, or -- I've been told -- the occasional massive king crab, which are available by special order. Next to the tanks is a handwritten sign (featuring some rather cute illustrations) listing the prices per pound, usually $12-13 for lobster and crab and $14-15 for fish. In true Chinese seafood restaurant fashion, minutes after your order is in, a net's in the tank, fishing out your meal.

Kowloon Style CrabDominic Armato

And here's where Nee House shines. Of the live seafood preparations I've tried, my favorite by far has been the Baked Crab in "Kowloon" Style, which is an early contender for the deliciousness of 2011. "Baked" is a bit of a hitch in translation. Rather, the crab is chopped into pieces, battered and deep fried, and then dry-fried in a wok with some potent seasonings. A mound of crispy minced garlic tops the crab, while whole dried chiles and slices of fresh jalapeno bring the heat. It's always a wonder to me when delicate crab stands up to aggressive preparations like this, but boy howdy, does it work. The crisp, hot, salty and spicy coating yields to sweet, succulent crab within. This is Chinese style, so not only is there no shame in getting messy, but you'll need to. That's half the pleasure of the dish, though, burning chiles and pungent garlic getting all over your fingers and lips as you work to free the crabmeat from its armor. When dealing with the lattice of cartilage in the body, I say go the way they taught me in China. Forget trying to pick the meat. Bite off the whole thing, and with nimble tongue and lips, separate and spit out the cartilage. It's indelicate, but it gets the job done. Bonus? The crab innards have been removed, battered and fried in one lump, a tender morsel of crab offal, hidden beneath the pile of chitin, waiting to be discovered.

House Special LobsterDominic Armato

Not quite as strong but still quite respectable is the House Special Lobster. The prep is similar, roughly segmented and deep fried before being stir-fried, this time in a wetter sauce heavy on ginger and black pepper (and a touch too heavy on sugar) with an abundance of scallions. The batter, which gets a touch thick at times, does well with the dry-frying, but gets a little goopy in places with the wetter sauce. The sauce also, on the day I had it, was a little heavy on the corn starch, killing the lightness and making it heavier than it should have been. Still, this is a very tasty dish, a few minor tweaks away from being great, and it's tricky to find live lobsters at $12 per pound in a tank at the grocery store, much less chopped up, prepared and brought to your table. It's a surprisingly good deal.

Steamed FishDominic Armato

Steamed fish with scallions, cilantro, shaoxing, soy sauce, rock sugar and a touch of sesame oil is as basic and straightforward as it gets, but it's always nice to see it done well, and with a fish that was flapping around just minutes before is really the only way to do it. The bass they've had during my visits isn't the most succulent and flavorful option available, but they do right by it, steaming it to a perfect tender and juicy consistency before dressing it with the subtly sweet sauce and piling it with just barely wilted shredded scallions. My only complaint -- and it isn't an inconsequential one -- is that I really wish they'd taken a little bit more care with the scaler. Picking out one or two is understandable. Getting a mouthful is less than pleasant. But I haven't had it enough to say whether this was the exception or the rule. Hopefully they just missed a spot and it won't happen again.

So while I still want to do some more exploring of the menu, it seems fair to base some conclusions from five visits, and I've concluded that Nee House is two restaurants. It's a typical Americanized joint that serves sweet sour chicken with an egg roll and fried rice for six dollars at lunchtime to a crowd that probably doesn't know or want to know what something like abalone is. And it's also a respectable Cantonese restaurant that mostly does a good job with seafood dishes, an especially good job with any of the fresh seafood pulled out of the tanks on site, and will nail fried rice and Chinese vegetables to accompany. I sure wish it was the kind of place where I could order anything on the menu and be reasonably certain that I'd get something authentic and crisply prepared. But even if that's not what Nee House is, it has a couple of niches that it does well, and that definitely makes it worth visiting.

Nee House
13843 N. Tatum Boulevard #15
Phoenix, AZ 85032
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sun11:00 AM - 9:30 PM


Looks like a spot that I've definitely got to take my pops. Heard mixed things about it over the years and I guess your review says that is definitely the case. :)

Damn you and your food p0rn. I saw this at 10 am and have been hungry for Chinese ever since.

Now imagine being Chinese with terrible shellfish allergies.

I can't even remember what crab or lobster tastes like.

I'm looking at houses for rent in Cincinnati Ohio today, and I'll have to eat some Chinese food because of you!

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