On a sun-scorched twist of University Avenue, beneath a cloudless blue sky, sits Trieu Chau. The restaurant's faded exterior and barred windows begin a visual story that develops inside: A jumbo flat screen, bleached red tables, newspaper stacks and dusty knick-knacks create a space my mom might call "messy" before cleaning her fork with her shirtsleeve.
Unfailingly optimistic, I think the place feels "cozy" and "comfortably cluttered." But anyone who's visited the decades-old, mom-and-pop joint will know I'm sugar-coating the truth. Because, really, Trieu Chau (4653 University Ave. in City Heights) feels less like a restaurant and more like an estate sale where food happens to be served.
A scattering of patrons filled one of the two dining rooms on a recent afternoon. This included a snaggletoothed man slurping soup who paused every few minutes to vigorously clear his throat. On his way out, he pointed a crooked, wrinkled finger at the cluster of bowls dotting my table and said, laughing, "How're you gonna finish all that?" The truth is, I didn't quite know.
As often happens when I order food on a near-empty stomach, I had accumulated quite an expansive array of dishes. A bowl of mixed beef soup sat beside a platter filled with black mushrooms and tofu, which rested near a heap of salt-and-pepper chicken. Last, but certainly not least, was a small bowl bearing two cow bones half-immersed in a clear, herb-flecked liquid. Kathy, the Trieu Chau matriarch, flashed a warm smile from where she stood near the entrance. Thankful for her encouragement, I tucked into my meal.
Kathy, her husband and her son run the no-frills Chinese-Cambodian eatery, keeping it open seven days a week. When I saw the easy-going, confident way other patrons ordered their meals, I knew I was the only first-timer there. Trieu Chau's menu, much like its décor, encompasses a hodgepodge of diverse elements. Chinese, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese dishes fill its pages.
A narrow kitchen wedged between the two dining rooms is where the magic happens. Trieu Chau's mixed beef soup is a beautiful thing: Hunks of meat bob together in a broth reddened by a fistful of dried chili powder. Rice noodles, delicate and translucent, swim in the steaming, lemongrass-flavored brew. From chewy to melt-in-your-mouth, the beef pieces offer a nice range of textures. But relishing the soup requires some level of grace and concentration. Extricating the noodles is no easy task, and carefully piling each component in a duck spoon is even trickier.
This fattened my appreciation for the salt-and-pepper chicken, which are crunchily deep-fried and pleasingly easy-to-eat. The only vegetarian dish on my list arrived next, offering cloud-soft slabs of tofu alongside Chinese broccoli and mushrooms. Spoon it over rice so that you don't waste the slick, sweet sauce.
The marrow-rich bones concluded my meal. I usually smear the buttery marrow onto toast, but the Chinese eatery doesn't serve its bones with bread slices. Heck, I couldn't even find a small spoon to aid my scavenging. Luckily, though, I did come equipped with a more important tool: an appetite.