Update: Unfortunately Sens is now closed, but you can get many of the same menu items just a few miles away at SoChu House!
Sens Asian Tapas and Sake Bar is one of our favorite vegan-friendly restaurants in downtown Phoenix. It’s also one of the hardest to describe. When I say “Asian tapas,” most people think “dim sum” – which it definitely isn’t.
Sens is the culinary masterpiece of Chef Johnny Chu, and is essentially the 2.0 version of one of our other past favorites, Fate. Chu is a master at spicy Asian sauces. At Sens, the small portion sizes allow you to try a wider variety of flavors and sauces in one meal than you could at Fate. My husband and I usually get three or four items for the two of us, which leaves us so full we can barely roll out the door. They bring the dishes out essentially one at a time, so it’s a slow-moving meal where you get to savor each item and share with your table-mates.
The menu at Sens offers a good variety of vegetarian entrees, which are also vegan, but we’ve heard they may fry the tofu in the same oil as meats. However, the fried tofu items with dipping sauces really can’t be skipped. Two of our favorites are the Wasabi Tofu and the Sesame Tofu.
The Wasabi Tofu sauce is exactly what you’d expect – if you put too much of it on your tofu it’s a direct and painful hit to the nose. But it’s the kind of pleasure and pain combo that makes you keep going back for more. The Sesame Tofu is a little less intense, with more of a soy and chili flavor to it.
Sens often offers a vegetarian special – usually some kind of spring roll or sometimes an entrée. On our last trip we had a spring roll special that was better than their usual spring rolls.
I think the wraps were wheat instead of rice, and crisped up better. They were also served with an outstanding soy and peanut dipping sauce and a small papaya mango salad, which was excellent.
One of the newer items on the Sens menu, but a throw-back to the days of Fate, is the Spicy Saigon.
Spicy Saigon was one of my favorites at Fate so I was thrilled to see it come back in a slightly different version at Sens (but hope they someday bring back the Spicy Sesame too). Spicy Saigon is a stir-fry of veggies and fried tofu in a sweet yet flavorful basil sauce.
The other item that’s a must-have for me is the Red Curry Tofu, which is served simmering in a clay pot.
It’s extremely rich and can sometimes be very spicy, but I end up licking the bowl every time. It’s served with the same fried tofu as the other dishes, plus veggies like okra, baby corn, carrots and snow peas. The best part is the hunks of pineapple. I usually leave them til the end when they’ve absorbed tons of the curry.
We usually get two bowls of rice and a plate of udon noodles to use as the base for the curry and Spicy Saigon, plus it comes in handy if you have any extra dipping sauces to sop up at the end. Woe to the waiter that tries to take the sauces away before we’re done!
Over the past two years since Sens has been open, we’ve tried pretty much every vegetarian item on the menu. Other highlights include the Papaya Mango Salad with Tofu, which is quite good and very spicy, and the Pineapple Ginger Tofu, which is tasty, but just not as great as the other two tofu dipping sauce items. We weren’t overwhelmed with the Hong Kong Flat Rice – the noodles were just too thick and flavorless, and the standard Papaya Mango Spring Rolls don’t do too much for me.
One warning: as much as we love Sens, 8 out of 10 times that we eat dinner there one or both of us ends up in fairly extreme digestive pain throughout the night. It’s just that spicy. I’ve tried to determine if it’s one particular dish, but I think it’s just spice overload in general. If you’re sensitive to spicy food, I’d recommend taking an antacid before eating there!
Sens is located south of Roosevelt in downtown Phoenix at 705 N. 1st Street #120. It’s open for lunch Monday – Friday, and dinner 7 days a week. It’s also open late (til 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday) and I think it turns into a hip bar based on the DJ that usually shows up around 6 p.m., but I don’t think I’d want to eat their spicy food at midnight!