For a place that has a menu boasting over 200 items, the new Phoenix Food Boutique in Garden Grove has the tiniest parking lot. The narrow alley leading into it barely fits one car, and if you manage to squeeze through without shearing off a side mirror, you still have to compete for a spot to open up. This parking area, which has the same capacity as an average Coto de Caza driveway, is always full even when the restaurant isn't. On most nights it looks like a losing game of Tetris and, at any given hour, at least four idling cars will give up and leave in frustration.
It's a shame because Orange County has always needed one of these. Phoenix Food Boutique is the anti-Panda Express, a Chinese fast-casual chain where you could get a made-to-order milky mixed fruit tapioca drink, pick up some marinated chicken feet, and slurp a big bowl of wonton noodle soup until midnight on weekdays; 1 a.m. on weekends. It started in 1965 at L.A.'s Chinatown as Phoenix Inn, a full-fledged, traditional restaurant serving kung-pao everything. The original is still there, but over the years the company changed its focus to these less stodgy concepts it called "Food Boutiques." Despite a false start in trying to open an Irvine branch more than a decade ago, it hasn't looked back. Phoenix Food Boutiques are now ubiquitous in San Gabriel Valley; I once drove past three of them within two miles of each other on Colima Road.
Garden Grove's Phoenix is designed much like all the others in SGV. Big windows surround it, it's lit brightly with a Vegas-y textured wall behind the register, and gleaming refrigerated display cases filled with all manner of pudding cups multi-layered gelatin cubes greet everyone as they walk in. Also chilling in the same fridge: fruit-filled mochis, the specialty of the chain that finds supple finger-length rolls of glutinous rice flour dough stuffed with either durian or mango and dusted with so much shredded coconut it looks like a loofah. You can't go home without trying one, even if the durian roll will make your burps smell like something died in your throat a week ago.
The rest of the menu is dizzying. Phoenix's kitchen puts out two dozen rice combos, nine kinds of fried rice, and twenty-five noodle dishes either in soup or stir-fried incarnations. There's even a roster of porridge I've not yet begun to crack, but I could stay within the confines of the appetizers alone and still construct a complete meal. The chicken wings can be covered in garlic or tossed with sliced chilies, scallions, and flurry of spicy salt. A deep-fried, twelve-piece appetizer platter has four trios: egg rolls packed end-to-end with shrimp; a flaky curry pocket; a greasy, deep-fried pork shumai; and a fried steam bun that tastes like a glazed donut after you slather it with sweetened condensed milk. A plate of Arctic surf clam in chili oil is a must despite looking as though it slid out of a can. I ate these firm-crunchy-chewy shark-tooth-shaped morsels and wondered where they've been all my life.
Though the kitchen's cooking style leans towards Cantonese, Phoenix Food Boutique embraces no regional bias. I saw teriyaki sauce being used for a prime rib, and when I ordered the stir-fried water spinach, it stank from the inimitable smelly-feet aroma of Malaysian belacan--a flavoring agent of fermented shrimp paste as delicious as it is malodorous. And if nothing on the menu strikes you, there's always have the option of creating your own dish by picking a protein and sauce from a list of ten that includes the opportunity to make a kung-pao out of anything.
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At the moment, I'm addicted to the pan-fried noodles smothered in a silken gravy with bean sprouts and velvety strips of pork. Its greatness lies in the tenuous existence of the noodle's crispness beneath all that sauce--a texture that feels as though a million tiny twigs simultaneously snapped in your mouth.
The best non-noodle, non-fried-rice item you can order is unique to only this branch: a cross-section cut of a lightly battered turbot steak glazed in a citron honey sauce. The fish melts more delicately than Chilean seabass and, at $8.50, it's an affordable luxury that costs just as much as a Panda Express three-item combo. Also exclusive to this restaurant: the "egg puffer," what Phoenix calls its Hong Kong-style waffles, those Madeleine-and-Nilla-Wafer hybrids that cook in bubble-patterned irons and come out looking like prescription pill blister packs you tear off one-by-one. Its sweet scent is the first thing that welcomes you in after you score a parking spot. And it smells like...victory.
Phoenix Food Boutique, 13345 Euclid St,, Garden Grove, (714) 638-8338; phoenixfood.us. Open Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri. -Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two $14-$20. No alcohol.