By Connor Dziawura
Johnny Chu and his business partner, Linda Qu, have quietly made their mark on the Valley with their creative restaurant concepts, including their first neighborhood foray, RedThai and Shabu Fondue.
“My partner and I, we’ve had many restaurants prior, and it’s always been destinations,” Qu says. “We’ve had downtown Phoenix, midtown Scottsdale, Tempe, and this (RedThai) was the first restaurant that we had opened that focused on neighborhood.”
The executive chef, Chu has owned and operated—some with the help of Qu—concepts including Lucky Dragon, Fate, Sens, T. Spot, Tien Wong Hot Pot and SoChu House. Together, they also opened YakiRamen in Phoenix last year. Though some people questioned the location choice, they wanted RedThai and Shabu Fondue to stand out.
“We had to really think about, ‘What can we bring to this neighborhood, this setting?’” Qu says.
They purposely placed the concepts next to each other four years ago, and in that time Qu has seen the region grow.
“There are a lot of restaurants that have, let’s say, two sides,” she explains. “They’ll have the main restaurant, then they have a VIP side or a private party side. So that’s kind of similar to what we have, only on our VIP or private party side we have a totally different concept.
“I think it makes it interesting because, let’s say you live in the neighborhood, you come here once or twice a week and want something different, you have another option—and it’s right next door.”
RedThai is a Southeast Asian kitchen, inspired by dishes from regions like Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. However, simplicity is essential.
“It’s not 100 items,” Qu explains. “But all the items we do have are very good. We make all our food items fresh, all of our sauces. It’s a little different. It’s not your traditional Thai or traditional Vietnamese food.”
Qu says all their dishes are equally popular.
“We really know who our audience is,” she explains. “If you go to any mainstream or traditional, let’s say, Chinese restaurant, Thai restaurant, there are only a few dishes people actually gravitate to.
“And that’s what we have on the menu. We believe, instead of doing 100 items sub par, we can do just a limited amount of items, but we do them really well.”
Chu brings a nontraditional approach to RedThai. This can include something as simple as reinterpreting classic dishes by switching ingredients or sauces. One example is the pad Thai ($13.98), which is served with tofu, chicken or shrimp. Rice noodles, egg, mushrooms, carrots and a chili lime sauce with sprouts and peanuts also comprise the dish. Shrimp is an additional charge.
“It’s a very common Thai dish,” Qu says. “So, if you go to a different Thai restaurant, it’s more like a dry stir fry. Here we use more of a chili lime citrus sauce.”
The gluten-free dish is brighter and more flavorful than other eateries.
Soups and salads are also on the menu, as are entrees like RedThai chicken and rice, sweet ginger fish and sizzling shrimp.
In addition to the pad Thai, RedThai’s wok fry and curry menu includes other choices like the $12.68 house dynamite, which has snow peas, pineapple, baby corn, onion, bell pepper and carrots in a spicy sweet and sour sauce, topped with peanuts and your choice of tofu, chicken or shrimp. Shrimp is an additional charge.
Starters are similarly diverse, with choices like coconut shrimp, chicken lollipops, sweet potato fries, Thai basil clams and the orange puff.
A simplified lunch menu has a selection of items for $7.98. RedThai also has desserts like sweet wonton and beignet, as well as weekly specials.
The cocktail bar plays a large role, too. A $10 martini menu ranges from the alluring Saigon—a concoction of RedThai lychee, ginger-infused Pearl vodka, guava juice and SOHO lychee liqueur—to the Green Buddha, which mixes Pearl vodka, pandan-infused vodka, condensed milk, pineapple juice, coconut juice and cream.
“The martinis menu that I have, I specifically made it for this restaurant,” Qu says. “So, just from the menu, from the flavors that we have, I had to pick certain drinks that can enhance the meal and the food item.”
Draft and bottled beers, and white and red wines are available, with happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. daily (though the restaurant is closed Mondays). But if you’re under 21 or just not a drinker, tea, coffee and other nonalcoholic beverages are available.
Food and drink aside, RedThai is an experience. The restaurant is an open and inviting space. Livelier than its conceptual counterpart, it features wide, open windows and anime projections on the wall behind the bar. DJs perform on the weekends.
Qu says the far mellower Shabu Fondue is intimate and perfect for group dinners or dates. It’s immediately apparent when entering the smaller, dimly lit room.
Shabu Fondue’s induction cook top tables allow for an interactive shabu-shabu experience where diners cook their own food.
“It’s something that every Asian culture, every Asian country has,” Qu says. “Their own version of hotpot.”
A similar concept to fondue, guests first choose from nine broths: mala spicy broth, spicy lemongrass, tomato chili, Korean kimchi, spicy red Thai curry, house Chinese herbal broth, Japanese miso, coconut curry and goji ginseng broth. Broths are $4.95.
“We kind of represent all the different hot pots from all the different regions within our menu,” Qu says.
Guests can then add meats, seafood, puffs, dumplings, eggs, mushrooms, vegetables, tofu or noodles to the broth. Choices are diverse. Guests can pick anything from beef tongue to Australian lamb, squid, cuttlefish puffs, pork dumplings, bamboo, quail eggs and Korean pumpkin, just to scratch the surface. Pricing starts on the lower end with selections like jasmine rice ($1.98), and increases to choices such as Kobe sirloin beef ($15.98 for 7 ounces).
Like RedThai, catering to different eaters is important. Shabu Fondue also offers gluten-free or vegetarian options.
“It’s very healthy and it caters a lot of dietary needs,” Qu says. “Everything we have there is gluten free. All the broths we have are gluten free. And then the certain allergies we can cater to that also.”
The same cocktails and appetizers are available at both restaurants. Despite the popularity of traditional fondue, its Asian likeness is far more unique to Phoenix, Qu says.
“This is the first shabu-shabu restaurant in Phoenix,” she says. After a pause, she emphasizes, “It still is the only shabu-shabu restaurant in Phoenix.”
With a long line of restaurants in the past, Qu says the reason they open different concepts is to attract new customers and keep things fresh for repeat guests.
Chu and Qu put their hearts and souls into the two neighboring Phoenix concepts, down to the design.
“Everything that’s in the space we actually designed ourselves,” she says. “And I think it makes it very unique for us because it’s our vision, as far as food and aesthetics. That’s something that we’re really proud of.”
RedThai/Shabu Fondue, 7822 N. 12th Street, Phoenix
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