By Jeff Kronenfeld, March 2020 Issue.
The name of the new restaurant Deez Buns may be cheeky, but its food is no joke.
Co-owners Justin Park and Kevin Rosales are a breath of fresh air in Tempe’s lunch scene. Their playful and surprising menu draws from Korean, Filipino, and other culinary traditions, without ever being bound by convention. Whether thin slices of charred pork belly, Korean fried chicken, Filipino cured sausage or even an impossible meatless patty, it all gets stuffed into a heavenly pale bun popularly known as a bao. The food is as affordable as it is rich in flavors and textures. The only reason the restaurant isn’t completely overrun is its limited hours and location. Checkout Deez Buns if you need a quick midday pick-me-up during the work week or are just hunting for a fresh new flavor.
The co-owners and co-chefs first met while working at Artizen Crafted American Kitchen and Bar, which is in the Canby Hotel. Park cooked and Rosales served drinks at the swanky Biltmore-area establishment. Then as now, the pair were always dreaming up new ideas for dishes, drinks and restaurants.
Park left the hotel to start his own pub in Mesa. He named it the Drunken Tiger. There he introduced Korea’s rich heritage of bar food and Soju cocktails to the Valley. Like Deez Buns, the Drunken Tiger is the kind of gourmet hole in the wall you could easily see at home in LA, New York or Seoul.
Rosales also ventured off on his own. He launched a pop-up restaurant and catering business called Good Fortune Kitchen. He worked food festivals and other events, sharing the traditional Filipino foods he grew up eating. The well-mustached chef described the archipelago’s culinary heritage as being as diverse as its islands are numerous. For perspective, the Philippines are made up of 7,641 islands according to the country’s National Mapping and Resource Information Authority.
Rosales and Park rekindled their friendship while working at the first PHX Night Market in 2018. The event brought together culinary traditions from across the Pacific Rim and beyond, plus over 10,000 visitors. Park was happy to see Phoenix finally creating something like LA’s 626 Markets, which started in 2012. Phoenix’s 2018 event was a success for both chefs, but it was grueling too. “The first PHX Night Market was so rough on both of us that we were like, ‘if there’s a second one, you want to collab together?’” Park said. “We reconnected there.”
The pair joined forces for the second — and as it turned out last — PHX Night Market the following year. Things got creative with dishes that were “Korean food slash Filipino food,” according to Park. They ended up with some leftover bulgogi mash. Bulgogi is a Korean specialty which literally translates as fire meat. Fire it is, usually consisting of thin cut beef combined with a variety of ingredients, everything from onions to grated Asian pears. If you haven’t had the pleasure of Korean barbeque, you really are missing out. Their bulgogi was used to make lumpias, a Filipino food somewhat like spring rolls, for the festival. However, now they wanted to try something different.
Park asked a server at Drunken Tiger to grab some hamburger buns on the way to work. They grilled up the bulgogi in patties and made burgers. The sandwiches turned out to be pretty good. Afterward, Kevin mentioned that he was baking siopao, the Filipino equivalent of bao and that it might be good to combine them. Never ones to waste food or a good idea, the culinary experiment led to the idea for Deez Buns.
The soft opening for Deez Buns occurred in mid-August of last year. A date for the hard opening isn’t set, but they are open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays for now. This is partly due to the location. Despite the light rail and a few apartment complexes, the intersection of Washington Street and Priest Drive is mostly office parks. It becomes a ghost town by sundown. Another reason is that Park dashes east after closing to make it to the Drunken Tiger, which opens at five. They hope to extend hours in the future, potentially opening earlier and adding a breakfast menu. The interior is still in transition, like a restaurant that hasn’t quite forgotten its past life, but Deez Buns isn’t about airs. It’s all about the food.
My first visit was in the morning soon after opening on a Tuesday. Hungry workers came in steadily, but the small line moved fast. I tried the longsilog, which is like an entire Filipino breakfast wedged between a sliced bao. The base is a hearty portion of cured Filipino sausage, which was subtly sweet and held together nicely. There is also an egg, spicy mayo and pickled atchara, a kind of papaya salad, which added fruity crunch. Light but filling, this was plenty to power a hungry writer deep into the afternoon. It made me excited to see what they dream up for the breakfast menu they may add. The price is right at only six bucks, the same for all the bao sandwiches. You can add a big order of fries and a drink for three more, as I did.
A New Year’s resolution for moderation got quickly left at the wayside, an occupational hazard in food writing. I also ordered the chicken satay, another bao sandwich. The huge chicken patty cantilevered over the edge of the circular bun. A big slice of tomato sat on top of the chicken, drenched in a hot tangy peanut sauce. Below was a bed of pickled atchara and other goodies. This was a perfect blend of heat and sweet, bringing my mouth to life without making my eyes water. It seemed to hit every flavor group, including that umami savory note so often overlooked.
My next visit came a couple of days later in the afternoon. The lunch rush had come and gone. A mural of Ren and Stimpy stared down with gleeful joy. I was excited to try the Korean fried chicken sandwich, naturally shorthanded to K.F.C. I’m not sure how it works legally, but in terms of taste, this one really hit the mark for me. They call the patty a homemade chicken nugget, but I feel that hardly does it justice. Like the satay, it is actually bigger than the bun and an inch thick. The breading was crunchy while the insides were soft and moist. I could detect though not decode the unique savory spice blend, likely inspired by an authentic Park family recipe. And we haven’t even got the dressings. It comes with a not-too-wet slaw, pickled radishes and a red sauce from the Drunken Tiger. There should be no surprise that this is the most popular item on the menu according to Park, given the real cultural moment chicken sandwiches are having. The bao really makes this one stand out.
I also gluttonously devoured a pork-belly, lettuce and tomato sandwich, helpfully abbreviated as a P.B.L.T. The pork comes in strips where two of the sides are charred black and two are nearly as white as the bun. Every bite of the tender meat is rich with garlic, vinegar and smoke. The swine is piled on a bed of lettuce, tomato and a house spread. The meat on this sandwich really sings.
I also ordered to go what is perhaps the least adventurous of the sandwiches, the American. Also called the quintessential American Burger, I opted for the non-meat Impossible Burger for this one. My usual dining companion had a tough day and this was a guaranteed smile inducer. It traveled well, too. It filled them up. The balance of sauce, patty and lettuce were just right, and all the better on the almost cloud-like bun.
If you’re like my hungry friend and can’t visit due to work, fear not. Park and Rosales bring their creative yet authentic style to a number of food festivals throughout the Valley. They may not always be under the Deez Buns banner, sometimes going as Drunken Tiger, Good Fortune Kitchen or some blend thereof. They’ll be at both successor events to the PHX Night Market, including the Asian District Night Market on Feb. 22 and 23, but also the Hawkers Street Market on April 24 and 25. Of course, they’ll be at the Bao and Dumpling Fest on March 21, as well the Arizona Matsuri on Feb. 22 and 23. Park and Rosales bring a fun new twist to the Valley’s culinary landscape, whether at the restaurant or a food festival. We will be sure to keep our eyes locked on Deez Buns for many years to come.