My family’s roots are in the province of Canton now called Guangdong. The Cantonese made up most of the early waves of Chinese immigrants to the US so for decades when you went out for Chinese food, you were going out for Cantonese or at least what started out as Cantonese. As what always happens, dishes were modified to appease Western palettes. Then fast food chains and mass market food companies swooped essentially doing for Cantonese food what Chef Boyardee and Pizza Hut did to Italian cuisine (if you’re ever had the Uncle Ben’s bottled Sweet and Sour sauce then you need not fear Hell! ) So when a new wave of immigrants came ashore in the 80’s bringing with them their new unadulterated cuisines, Cantonese became yesterday’s news. That’s sad because Cantonese still has plenty to offer if you know where to look.
Phoenix Inn is one of the best known Cantonese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. It lies on East Valley Blvd. in Alhambra. Just be a little careful, past Alhambra city limits the road becomes West Valley again so depending on where you start you may have to go West to reach East Valley. The restaurant sits right beside a bank. The parking lot is in the rear. Spots for Phoenix Inn are labeled. The outside looks impressive with an awning covering outside seating.
Inside is crisp, clean, and modern. Smooth jazz pipes in from the sound system.
I sat down and looked over the menu. The restaurant has been around since 1965 and there are a few holdovers from the old days, dishes that you’ll find in PF Chang’s and other spots; Lettuce Cup with Minced Chicken, Crispy Shrimp Rolls, Sweet and Sour Pork, Pad Thai, Sliced Prime Rib with Korean BBQ Sauce, Kung Pao Chicken. But there are still plenty choices for the authentic food hunter; rice porridge with ground pork and 1000 year old egg, Ox tail stew with dried Tofu, Fried Rice with Shrimp Paste. The real deep end of the pool is the Deli selection. Phoenix Inn operates an adjoining shop where you can choose from its extensive list of desserts and pastries or a selection of very off beat cold items. They offer Artic Surf Clam in Chili Oil, Jelly Fish in Sesame Oil, Marinated Beef Shank, Duck Gizzards, Seaweed. I decide to jump in and choose the Marinated Duck Tongue for $5.95. They come straight from the deli counter in their plastic container. The waiter peals back the plastic seal and it’s ready to be eaten. The tongues sit on a bed of boiled peanuts. They look a little bit like smoked oysters. I pop the first one in my mouth. I taste soy and star anise. There’s a bone running along the bottom of each tongue. You work the meat loose from the bone with your tongue and teeth or failing that just grab the bone with the fingers and scrape off the good stuff with your teeth.. This isn’t like the beef tongue you get at the deli. There is only a little bit of meat along with softened tendon and cartilage that comes along for the ride. It’s like a bit of anise flavored duck head cheese. I find I rather like it.
My next dish is the signature item on the lunch menu at Phoenix Inn, they’re Boneless Chicken for $6.45. This is an example of a classic Cantonese dish modified in a good way. Simple boiled chicken is a classic in Cantonese cooking. Traditionally it is served hacked up bones and all, just like you get at Sam Woo’s BBQ. Chinese put the pieces in their mouths and work the flesh free of the bones with their tongues. It’s a tricky skill that most westerners and yours truly haven’t acquired. So Phoenix Inn made it easier and de-boned their chicken. At least it’s mostly de-boned. Perhaps as a nod to tradition or maybe to just pile it higher on the plate there are still some pieces with the bone in underneath the slices of breast meat. It comes lightly coated in a soy based sauce. The sauce isn’t there to overwhelm the dish, it’s just there to support it. The chicken is cooked perfectly, tender and very moist. Nothing is worse than dried out chicken breast but this one has plenty of juice. It’s a simple dish, the kind Cantonese does best whether it’s this of a quick stir fry of fresh seasonable vegetables. There’s something bold in presenting such a simple uncomplicated dish as a signature item. But they execute it just right.
The final dish came complimentary. It’s a bowl of red broth with soft stewed pork and a big piece of braised lotus root. It was flavored with the sweet red beans that come in many Chinese sweets. It was technically the dessert course. Something to cleanse the palette and perhaps balance out the inner chi. It was pleasant with a slight sweet aftertaste to it courtesy of the red bean. The pork was super tender. The lotus root didn’t have much flavor of its own but absorbed some of the sweetness of the broth. It was mild but a very refreshing way to end the meal.
Cantonese cooking still has a few treasures to be unearthed if you you’re willing to explore a little. Always try a place where the local Chinese eat and look at what they are ordering. Rice Porridge may not sound like a winner, but if you loved Campbell’s Chicken and Rice as a kid it will be a real discovery.
208 E. Valley Blvd.
626 299 1238
Price Range: :Lunch from $3 (for plain porridge) to $7.50, Dinner from $3.95 to $25, Desserts from $2.75 to $5.95