I’ve never been a food truck person in the same way that I’ve never been a camper. I want furniture, thermostats and place settings, with precious few exceptions. One of those exceptions happens to be Dragon Flame Chinese Grill, an airbrushed food truck parked semi-permanently on the side of Tempe Kings Market just east of Arizona State University.
It gets a pass because the Northern Chinese cuisine is unusual and often excellent, and 30-something owner Kun Mao is a likeable speed-talker whose candor and seat-of-the-pants MO are entirely endearing.
Most of the college kids who keep this six-month-old enterprise rolling order online and let some other college kid deliver to their door, but they miss all the fun. Dithering over the Chinese-alphabet menu with subtitled, un-evocative dish descriptions like “lamb tend” and “tomato noodle,” my pal and I are invited to eat in the adjacent building by Mao himself – a sweet young fellow who drapes a thin veil of pink plastic over our table with a flourish.
Minutes later, in walks Mao’s new hire, complaining about the restaurateur’s two yippy Maltese dogs, and the bedlam continues in this fashion as we eat our supper – Mao rushing in and out, the dogs barking, Mao donning surgical gloves to stir our noodles and tell us stories. It’s dinner theater, and the price of admission is a “lamb tend.”
Thankfully, the regional Dongbei cuisine – a trending style featuring lamb, beef, nose-to-tail dishes, noodles, dough and plenty of spice – is very good with or without the entertainment. You’ll want to start with meltingly tender, faintly sweet barbecue short ribs, redolent with smoke and char, served on folded and magically fluffy pita. The sliced lamb version – inaccurately called a lamb burger – is almost as good.
You can’t go wrong with any of Mao’s dry noodle bowls, so consider the tomato noodle: five-spice-braised pork with vermicelli noodles, thickly sliced onion and scrambled egg. The heartier cumin lamb noodles are also delicious, with slices of ultra-tender lamb piled on so liberally that even a stoned frat boy might feel stuffed. From the soup selections, I’d stick with the tasty and accessible “dragon hot” (rice noodles, crab meat, chicken and beef meatballs, tofu, mushrooms and veggies) or the simple lamb noodle soup with bok choy. Skip the “sour bean” and “barbecued” noodle offerings – probably fundamental to Northern China but not particularly interesting to these Americans.
Mao’s menu accommodates both the adventurous (lamb kidney skewers) and timid (barbecue chicken wings) but my favorite resides in the sweet spot between: the barbecue bacon roll, a bundle of shimeji mushrooms wrapped in bacon, splashed with barbecue sauce and slapped on the grill until the still-crisp mushrooms become slightly limp and the bacon sizzles.
I can’t wait to go back and try more things from the constantly expanding menu. Mao says he’s in the process of converting his half of the market into a bona fide dining room. That, I promise you, will be interesting.
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