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Gwen Ashley Walters
March, 2013, Page 135
Photos by Richard Maack
Inside SoChu House
Former Fate and Sens chef Johnny Chu serves stellar staples and new noshes at his Asian-fusion eatery in Midtown.
I never dined at Johnny Chu’s first restaurant, Lucky Dragon, but when he opened his second, Fate, in a Downtown bungalow in 2003, I was hooked. I’d never tasted anything like it: fusion-Chinese cuisine so punchy it left me exhausted, and exhilarated. Authentic? No more so than General Tso’s chicken, but what do you expect from a Hong Kong-born chef who’s lived in the Valley since he was 13?
Following Fate’s closure in 2008, Chu opened Sens Asian Tapas & Sake Bar, adding more Far East flavors and focusing on grazing plates. Chu shuttered Sens last summer in search of more spacious digs, reopening in midtown with a new name: SoChu House – a play on his name and shochu, a Japanese distilled liquor that figures prominently in this Asian equivalent of a gastropub.
Glossy black front doors lead to a stark, modern dining room made even more dramatic by low, theatrical lights. To the left of the dining room is a long, sexy lounge punctuated by a boxy tower (I won’t describe the artwork nailed to the tower in this PG-rated magazine). A DJ spinning chill-tempo tunes populates the elevated cutout on weekends. In Chu’s new house, music, mood and house-infused shochus are equal partners with the food.
Photos - From left: Hong Kong flat rice noodles with shrimp • soup gyoza and ginger mint duck salad
The menu reads like Chu’s greatest hits, resurrecting Fate favorites like Black Dragon (tofu, fish or shrimp in fermented black bean sauce, $10/tofu or chicken; $14/shrimp), sweet and spicy house dynamite ($10/tofu or chicken; $14/shrimp) and Hong Kong flat rice ($11) with chunks of fried chicken or tofu, baby corn, cauliflower, carrot slivers and flat, oval disks of chewy, gelatinous rice swimming in chopstick-lick-worthy soy and garlic sauce. A small bone to pick: None of the eight entrées under “family style” comes with rice ($2 extra).
As with Sens, tapas dominate, including the holdover soup gyoza ($6), Chu’s twist on Shanghai steamed soup dumplings. Filled with piping hot broth and a pork meatball, the dish requires popping the whole dumpling in your mouth, lest you lose the prized juice. New to the menu is sizzling shrimp ($11), a head-turning dish that spits and splatters on its way to the table with seven plump shrimp, skillfully stir-fried in a fiery chile and garlic sauce.
Hot and sour soup ($10) isn’t new but is worth revisiting – if you can handle heat. The red-tinged broth with bobbing tomatoes, tofu and vegetables is a deceptive scorcher, yet delivers a mouthful of fervor. Pad Thai noodles – with shrimp ($14) – is not new and more Singaporean than Thai, but it is a winner. Chu incorporates less sugar and more lime, and thin vermicelli noodles replace thick rice sticks.
That’s the thing about Chu. He cooks what he pleases, tradition be damned. Fifteen years after opening his first Valley restaurant, “General” Chu is still marching to his own culinary drum – and the beat goes on.
: Asian Fusion
: 2801 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday-Sunday
: Soup gyoza ($6); sizzling shrimp ($11); hot and sour soup ($10); shrimp Pad Thai ($14)
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