When I lived in central Florida, I learned never to ignore restaurants in shopping centers and strip malls. Since that’s all they had there, it was easy advice to follow. But in our more architecturally rich environs, strip-mall restaurants are often overlooked in favor of locations with more charm and street life. That’s why the bustling Phoenix Food Boutique in South Pasadena caught my eye. The tiny shop next to OSH almost always has people eating inside and a few people picking things out of the deli case. This makes for quite a crowd in a space the size of a bungalow living room.
There’s quite an empire of Phoenix establishments—eight in both the old and the new Chinatowns. Desserts and deli at the South Pas store come packaged from a central location, and they make a staggering variety of food and drinks to order as well. You can get exotic with jellyfish, duck tongue and 1,000-year-old eggs, porridge and dessert soup, or play it safer with fried rice, noodle dishes and dumplings.
The food is often very good, too. Laksa noodle soup has a subtle, sweet-mild coconut curry flavor; the seasoned seaweed salad is Japanese style, springy and sprinkled with sesame seeds; the water-lily stir fry has a nice crunch; and the shredded tofu noodles with soybean packs a doubly virtuous punch. The beef cold cuts make a nice appetizer, with crunchy pickles that might remind you of Amish cooking; the Spanish seafood fried rice is refreshing and light for a dish of this type (but not even faintly reminiscent of paella). The desserts (one of their eight shops is a bakery) are to die for, at least the halvah-like sesame pudding, the black sticky rice pudding and the excellent pecan tarts, though I can’t vouch for the green bean and seaweed dessert soup, green tea custard, or steamed papaya white fungus (see what I mean by exotic?).
I’d give most of the meat dishes a miss. The BBQ duck in a noodle soup was everything I dislike about that bird, stringy and fatty and bland; the beef in the Portugese-style stew was 70% gristle (though the curry-coriander sauce was intriguing), and can I say that their “sliced prime rib” with Korean BBQ sauce thoroughly deserves the quotation marks—it was more integument or tendon than anything remotely like muscle.
Phoenix Food Boutique is not your standard Chinese restaurant; with half a dozen tables it really is what it says it is, a food boutique for a savvy to-go crowd. Every entry on the packed menu is under $7. For $15 to $20, a person you can feast family style on a great variety of interesting dishes in your own dining room. And save room for dessert.
456 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, 626.403.1828, phoenixfoodboutique.com. L & D daily. No booze. MC, V. $