When Golden Phoenix Chinese Barbecue and Vietnamese, 2728 N Classen Blvd., burned down on a winter night earlier this year, the immediate question had to do with ashes and whether one of Oklahoma City's most well-respected Asian restaurants would be able to make like its namesake and rise from them.
The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Manager Jason Xa said the blown transformer that ignited from a neon sign and rode the dry breeze to inferno status within minutes less than a month before the Chinese New Year was a short-term tragedy that's turned into a long-term triumph.
The new, improved Golden Phoenix, which opened after just four months of remodeling, has nearly doubled in size, and an interior that previously was in a gradual mode of improvement is now pristine.
“We couldn't have done it without the community,” Xa said. “People have been so supportive. ... We never cried, but our customers cried for us.”
Nearly five years ago, Xa was asked by his brother-in-law Larry Lee, who co-owns the restaurant with wife, Mary, to help out at the restaurant for a couple of weeks to help tighten the ship. All these years later, he's still managing the restaurant.
Xa had shown his worth working at the Lees' adjoining Chinatown Supermarket, which was also devastated by the fire. Both Golden Phoenix and the market have reopened despite missing their biggest month of the year.
“We had a permit to sell nonperishables out of the market,” Xa said. “It was a really tough time.”
The line of people I witnessed buying what they could from Chinatown Supermarket back in February was evidence of the community support that Xa said drove the Lees to such a quick return.
About the food
The good news is that the food is unchanged. The 15-page menu continues to be one of the city's most ambitious and beguiling. While many Asian restaurants print two menus — one with traditional dishes and the other with the stepchildren of General Tso developed for American tastes — Golden Phoenix puts it all out there in one spiral-bound tome.
Within this volume of Asian specialties, you'll find standard and exotic dishes that come in the basic vegetarian, beef, chicken or pork. But you'll also find squid, frog legs, live lobster, live Dungeness crab, whole pig, whole duck, congee, pho, clay pots, shabu-shabu, spring rolls you can build and roll yourself, and a special seven-course beef dinner.
“Everything we do here is made from scratch, that's why we take a little longer on some stuff,” Xa said. “Spring rolls, dumplings — all handmade.”
The fried spring rolls contain more pork than vegetables. The spring rolls are the antithesis, containing ultra fresh greens and cool boiled shrimp. Other appetizers include sauteed clams, beef stew with baguette, shrimp paste on sugar cane, escargot and rice papers with either dry shrimp, ground pork or pork pate.
All told, the menu contains about 300 dishes. That would be suicide for most restaurants, but Golden Phoenix has the inventory support of an entire Asian supermarket.
“We have a door that goes right into the market,” Xa said.
And the kitchen is split in two.
“One side does Chinese, the other does Vietnamese,” he said. “We have two chefs and two sous chefs on each side.”
Outside of the expansive choices for chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, crab, fish and squid, Golden Phoenix offers vegetables a la carte and vegetarian dishes. They also serve five versions of congee (a rice-based soup) and nearly a dozen versions of pho, the traditional Vietnamese rice noodle soup that usually begins with beef broth. But don't sleep on the mi, an egg-noodle soup that comes in 13 varieties, or the five different clear noodle soups.
As for stir-fry dishes, choose between virtually any noodle or rice and all the aforementioned proteins along with a myriad sauces. Mi kho indicates egg noodle dishes. Hu tieu kho and Xao indicate dry rice noodles, and bun is vermicelli. Rice comes fried and steamed plus the Vietnamese specialty com tam, which is from fractured rice grains.
But the specialty of the house is what is called Chinese barbecue, although it shouldn't be confused with smokers, ketchup- or mustard-based sauces and brisket.
The biggest dish, literally, is the whole pork. Pigs ranging from 30 to 100 pounds are prepared over a three-day process: a quick dip in hot water to kill bacteria, an initial roast that helps render the fat, some secondary butchering and seasoning, and a final roast to finish the pig.
“There's no added fats or oils,” Xa said. “It gets crispy in its own fat.”
So, too, go whole duck and chicken, with finger-licking good results.
Xa said the restaurant goes through 20 to 30 whole pigs a week, some that are eaten family-style at one of the many large circular tables outfitted with a Lazy Susan and some that are taken home.
“You come in here on Saturdays, and it's mostly families,” Xa said.
Go in Golden Phoenix any day, and it's mostly family doing the work.
While there was no mythical influence on the rise of Golden Phoenix, Xa said the community conjured just enough magic to jump-start the project.
“It was really unbelievable,” Xa said. “Overwhelming.”
Speaking of overwhelming, don't let the menu intimidate you. You can get the condensed version from the staff.
For more information about ordering whole pigs or takeout, call 524-3988.