Mushu Asian Grill: Stir Fry Destination

If there’s one type of cuisine I’m picky about, its Chinese food. Since I lived there for over a year, I learned about and ate many, many Chinese dishes from a variety of cuisines. China, as a large and ancient nation, has dishes varying by region. Traditionally there are 8 major cuisines: Anhui, Fujianese, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuanese, Zhejiang, and Cantonese. Each correlates to a specific geographic region; furthermore, each area has unique flavor profiles and ingredients. Sichuanese food (or Szechuan in the US) is well-known for fiery, tongue-numbingly spicy dishes, often deep red in color. Fujian province is located on the coast, so seafood is highlighted in this region’s dishes.

Most often, I eat Asian food in East Mesa, where I can read Chinese menus and speak Chinese to my servers. However, recently I started taking a summer class (ugh OChem) at Phoenix College. My high school football team used to play their Friday night games at the stadium there, so I had frequently visited Hamburger Works. Across the street is a small tan building with a bright red door. I had passed by Mushu Asian Grill for several years, but never actually stopped in to try their food. Boyfriend and I took the opportunity to test it out.

The restaurant is a member of the Arizona Chinese Restaurants Association, often supporting local Chinese organizations and events like the Dragonboat Festival. Their Yelp reviews are consistently positive. Pictures online showed fresh food. Apparently, their menu changes occasionally to maintain variety.

IMG_1644

The inside is clean and organized, thankfully not kitschy. It was also empty. Boyfriend and I were the only diners seated at a table. Though several people came in, they ordered stir-fry to go. We enjoyed a very quiet meal on an early Thursday evening at a small table in the corner. The only noise came from the boss, who sat at her desk in another corner jabbering away in Mandarin.

IMG_1645

We started off with some potstickers, a light appetizer to give me an idea of what kind of flavors to expect. I enjoyed the crispy dumpling skin (the result of the dumpling sticking to the pot). The inside flavoring was juicy but a little bland. This was easily improved with some soy sauce or chili oil.

IMG_1646

I chose a classic dish often mistaken for “Americanized Chinese” food: Kung Pao Chicken. I used to eat it fairly regularly at a small cafe near my campus in Nanjing. You should expect a chicken and vegetable dish with thick sauce, slightly spicy, and topped with peanuts.

Boyfriend does not particularly care for Chinese food. Fortunately, Mushu is well-known for their Make-Your-Own Stirfry. You have even turn your stir fry into a burrito. Choose your protein and sauce. Step up to the vegetable bar, take a bowl and stack your bowl with fresh, bright vegetables. They’ll cook your stir fry, then serve it to your table.

Without any other guests in the restaurant, I was surprised it took as long as it did to serve us, but I assume that was from the different cook-times between a main dish and a simple stir-fry. I did appreciate that our food was served at the same time. Stir-fry is served in an individual bowl, while the food on-menu is served traditional Chinese “family-style.” Our waitress disappeared once she served the food, only to return once it was time for the bill.

IMG_1651

The Kung Pao Chicken was served on a larger platter with a side of rice. I served myself some food onto a small plate. I was surprised at the appearance of the dish. All of the components were there, but the sauce was thin and light as opposed to the dark, thick sauce to which I’ve become accustomed. Each common ingredient was present: chicken, spicy peppers, bell peppers, various veggies, and peanuts. The celery seemed as if it hadn’t been cooked, only tossed in at the end. Though this added crunch, the raw celery flavor didn’t seem to mesh well with the other components. Perhaps this is a lighter version from a different area.

The DIY stirfry was the star of the meal. Though my boyfriend chose fewer vegetables than I would, the meat, noodles, and sauce were all flavorful. There were a variety of options for noodles. We opted for a thin wheat noodle, and we were given plenty of it. The noodles and other ingredients were all well-coated with a thick, garlicky, savory sauce. Next time I’ll make my own packed full of the fresh veggies, and maybe try another sauce.

IMG_1647

Overall, the place has a nice atmosphere where you can work on homework or read while you enjoy a quiet meal.  Take-out is, of course, an option – and apparently quite popular based on the number of people who left without ever sitting at a table. While it’s not the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in the Valley, the stir fry is a quick, delicious option, especially if you’re attending classes at Phoenix College. Check out their website for more information.

Service: 3/5

Price:  $10-$15 per person

Food: 3.5/5

Durant’s: A Phoenix Institution

The growing food community in Phoenix often focuses on new, trendy restaurants offering a variety of fresh flavors. Often overlooked is the classic steakhouse in downtown Phoenix – Durant’s. The pink steakhouse off Central Avenue serves the freshest steak in the state, usually to an older crowd that loves this Phoenix gem.

The small pink building’s facade can be deceiving. My boyfriend was surprised that I would choose to make reservations (on Open Table). Then we drove around back, since diners enter through the kitchen. The parking lot was full of cars, as was the dining room.

The decor may seem old-fashioned, particularly the velvet walls. But you know what they say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Durant’s has been serving the best steaks in Arizona for decades. The pink hue to the lighting doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to their menu and service.

We were seated in a cozy booth in a corner. Our server dropped off their usual starter, cold, raw vegetables served over ice. The service was, as always, incredible. Our servers were attentive without being overbearing. My water was always full. Boyfriend was served a nice glass of scotch. Durant’s has a full bar with an extensive wine list. You can find any drink to pair with your meal.

Our appetizers were quite large. I ordered a jumbo shrimp cocktail. The shrimp were large, fresh, and ice cold. I enjoyed the tart horseradish flavor of the cocktail sauce. Boyfriend ordered Kobe sliders, which I thought would be smaller. The sliders might as well have been an entree. Three huge, juicy umami sliders were served on a simple platter. I don’t know if they were truly Kobe beef, but the meat was obviously fresh and high-quality. Boyfriend refused to leave them uneaten despite ordering a massive steak to follow.

Steak is really the way to go at Durant’s. This is not the place to order chicken, though you may be surprised by their seafood selection. Choose a cut then choose sides to go with them. Boyfriend ordered a 20 oz. Delmonico steak. He prefers his steak rare, and Durant’s is really the only place that I trust to cook a steak rare. His steak was served with crips, flavorful waffle fries. It seems an odd choice to serve with such a classy meal, but was a nice crunch compared to the soft, buttery steak.

IMG_0918

Sorry about my pictures. I was way too preoccupied with the meal.

I ordered my usual, the lamb chops. I despise the mint jelly served with it because it takes like toothpaste. However, I could eat those lamb chops every single day. As classless as it was, I picked up those lamb chops to eat every piece of meat off that bone. I focused on the tender, spiced lamb and was unable to finish the delicious, garlicky mashed potatoes I chose for my side.

When I booked our reservation, I let them know that it was Boyfriend’s birthday. They let us choose any one of their desserts from their long list. I know Durant’s is well-known for their cheesecakes, but Boyfriend has never turned down a brownie. Our server brought us a massive tower of brownie with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, and chocolate shavings. Even though we were both incredibly full, we couldn’t help but eat the whole gooey, rich, chocolatey dish.

IMG_0931

After eating over dozens of meals together, I finally succeeded in finding a meal that rendered Boyfriend speechless. There’s a special awe to having a meal that is so delicious that it makes you think of your favorite meals from your childhood. Boyfriend grew up on a cattle ranch with access to the fresh beef on a regular basis. For a restaurant to serve him a perfectly cooked, fresh, and juicy steak that reminded him of home, it’s something I will never forget. Thank you Durant’s for an amazing experience.

IMG_0928.jpg

For more information, you can check out their website.

Price: Expect between $50-$100 per person.
Atmosphere: 3.5/5
Service: 4.5/5
Food: 5/5

Is Urban Cookies Worth the Hype?

IMG_4768Every foodie is always on the lookout for the best local treats. The best ice cream, cookies, cupcakes, and pastries are listed or featured on television specials. Some chefs and bakers are known for their wins in food competitions. Phoenix is home to many of the places featured on Food Network shows and foodie blogs.
According to Business Insider, Urban Cookies is the best bakery in the state of Arizona. They made a name for themselves after winning Cupcake Wars. Urban Cookies serves cupcakes without artificial colors or flavors, which probably won them points with the judge Florian.
As I revise this old review, it is important to note that the bakery moved locations. I visited the tiny storefront on the corner of Highland & 7th Street. Even on a Sunday afternoon there was a long line for one of their famous sweet treats. The old location was a tiny, cramped space, forcing us to stand outside in the heat while we waited in line. Most, if not all, seating was outside the building. Fortunately, the staff worked to assist customers as fast as possible. The staff is friendly and willing to explain the choices. They worked as fast as they could without making the customer feel rushed. The new location is still on 7th Street, but closer to Thomas. I assume they realized the need for a space large enough to accommodate their popularity.
The Cupcakes
Urban Cookies offers cookies, cupcakes, baked doughnuts, and ice cream cookie sandwiches. My focus was on their award-winning cupcakes. I purchased four cupcakes, a nice mix of classic and new flavors. None of these use artificial flavoring or coloring. The “Brown Velvet” cupcake, a red velvet cupcake without red food coloring, embodies this mission. These simple and neat cupcakes are presented in a plain brown box.
The classic cupcakes were $2.99, but for $3.49 per specialty cupcake, though the prices may have changed. The price may be inflated due to the prestige of a Cupcake Wars winner. Still, I wouldn’t consider the price exorbitant. A dozen is almost $40, and I remember that being a factor in not purchasing them for a family event. There’s a large selection of flavors: from classics like chocolate to their “fan favorites” like cherry cheesecake.
According to their website, they also have some seasonal flavors and change the decor to suit the season. For example, in the fall, they add a pumpkin cupcake to their menu. They also offer vegan and gluten-free options.
IMG_4770
Cupcake #1: Mint Chocolate
This was my favorite cupcake of the day. Mint chocolate is one of my all-time favorite flavors, so I was looking forward to trying this one. The chocolate cake was moist and not too rich. It was a little dense for my tastes, but that’s more an issue of personal preference. I prefer a light texture, less like a traditional cake. I didn’t quite like the color of the frosting, but I can only assume they colored it naturally. I’m also not a fan of this particular swirl (It’s a swirl I call the “poop swirl” and I hate it on Georgetown Cupcakes too). The cool, refreshing mint flavor was kept in check by the chocolate shavings on the outside.
Cupcake #2: German Chocolate
I’m not sure if Urban Cookies uses different chocolate cake recipes. This cake tasted suspiciously like the same cake as the mint chocolate cupcake. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At the very least, they get points for consistent bakes. The topping was the star of this cupcake. There were several flavors (coconut, caramel, and pecan) that mingled well together. The subtle caramel frosting allowed the coconut and nuttiness to come through. I was in love with the almost toffee-like crunch and chewiness.
Cupcake #3: Orange Blossom
This was the worst cupcake I have ever eaten. I was trying to find a nice way to say this, but I legitimately could not even finish it. The olive oil base cake was moist but too dense. I could not taste any orange flavor, even without eating the frosting. The frosting was the issue. The thin frosting began to slide off the cupcake (despite all the others remaining intact). The flavor was the biggest problem. A heavy-handed use of rose water made the frosting virtually inedible. It was so strong my brother said it tasted like “floor cleaner.” I’m not sure if the baker didn’t taste it, or if this is how they prefer the flavor. Regardless, I don’t even think I’d be willing to try this on another day.
Cupcake #4: Churro
This was most certainly the heaviest cupcake I’ve ever held in my hand. I was most impressed by the technique of this cupcake. They had to distinguish between a regular cupcake and a churro. Through some baking sorcery, they blended both desserts to create a churro-like exterior with a soft, moist interior. Instead of creating a churro-flavored cupcake, they made a fusion of two delicious desserts.
IMG_4773
Unfortunately, the light cake was weighed down by the overly sweet cream cheese. Don’t get me wrong; I love sweet, but it was too much for a mild flavored cake. The cinnamon sugar on the cake and frosting helped draw away from the cream cheese.
These were not the greatest cupcakes I’ve ever had, even here in the Valley. However, I appreciate their all natural approach to flavors and baking. Most of the cupcakes were sweet and tasty, so I can understand why they have such a wonderful reputation. Overall, I enjoyed the creative flavors, rich cakes, and strong flavors. If you’d like to try for yourself, stay far away from the Orange Blossom cupcake. Urban Cookies also makes cookies and other desserts. Now that they’ve moved, it may be worth returning to try some other desserts offered on their menu.
For more information about Urban Cookies, check out their website.
Have you been to this bakery? Did you enjoy your experience? Do you agree with my review? Comment below!
Price: $3.59 – $3.79 each / $43.08 – $45.48 per doz (+ tax) for cupcakes. See their website for complete pricing.
Atmosphere: 3/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 3.5/5

Different Pointe of View

 

Phoenix has some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. It’s one of my favorite parts about this city. High-end hotels have claimed coveted positions on mountain-tops to provide dining destinations boasting of stunning views. One such restaurant is Different Pointe of View, a fine dining establishment located in North Phoenix.
The area is under a light ordinance, allowing for an obstructed view of Phoenix and the surrounding scenery. After a short drive up a steep hill and through the resort, you’ll find parking and valet for the restaurant.
My party of four had reservations on a Friday night. We called the restaurant, but you can also use OpenTable for last-minute reservations. I assumed the need for a reservation was a must. Yet when we arrived there was ample space for more parties. There is also outdoor seating, perfect for a romantic dinner at sunset.
The best part of the atmosphere is, of course, the view. The entire building is encased in spotless glass. The view presents the entire valley below, lights twinkling, but not glaring. Despite the location and the price, many guests were in resort attire. The restaurant seems to have a versatile, relaxed atmosphere with space for both casual and formal gatherings.
The interior design centers on the glass windows and view. Otherwise there is minimal decoration in black and red. I was only disappointed that there were no real candles on the table.
Different Pointe of View boasts a 31 year history of Contemporary American fare. Their menu changes to reflect fresh, seasonal ingredients. Keep in mind the menu has very likely changed since my trip. Starters included many salads and other light bites, likely chosen to balance the meat-heavy entrees. There is a large selection of main entrees for every taste, even with some gluten-free options. The wine and drink list is extensive. There is something to pair with any and every dish. The dessert list changes less often. The menu relies on classic dishes like the vanilla creme brûlée while adding a few more unique options for added flavor.

Appetizer

1. Perigord Truffle and Parmesan Risotto

I loved the poached egg that, once broken, blended into the cheesy risotto to add a new layer of flavor. Without the egg the risotto was one-note. It was a plain risotto without embellishment.
Chefs from Chopped and other Food Network shows have repeatedly expressed their disdain for truffles. I, on the other hand, am obsessed with truffles. Seeing truffle in the dish’s name had me eager to try. Either the only truffle was the garnish on top, or I was unable to taste the woody, nutty flavor in the dish.

2. Blackberry Arugula Salad

I don’t usually care for blackberries because I tend to find them bitter. This dish, however, surpassed my expectations. The arugula was thoroughly coated so I didn’t have to search around for the flavor. The goat cheese helped blend the bright blackberries into the more bitter arugula. The pistachios added crunch for a contrast in texture.
I should note that my mother found the dish a bit off-putting. The whole blackberries had seeds, which for her, gave the dish a gritty texture “like there was sand in the salad”. The presentation wasn’t too pleasing either. I would have preferred putting the cheese and nuts on top to lighten what looked like a plate of purple-grey weeds.

Entrees
1. Grilled Piquillo Pesto Scented Shrimp

The shrimp was large, juicy and seasoned well. I’m not sure if I would use the word pesto to describe the sweet almost marinade-like seasoning. My shrimp laid atop a bed of forbidden rice, which covered a cauliflower puree. The rice blended into the puree to create a risotto-like addition. The menu was already so heavy with risotto and creamy textures; I had been hoping for more variety and a way to make the rice shine.

2. Roasted Chicken

This dish looked boring, and it tasted boring. The chicken was the same color as the risotto and the starches served with it. In comparison to the previous dish, I hoped for more vibrant color contrast. This may be personal preference but the risotto was extra al dente, very crunchy and almost like eating uncooked rice. By itself, the risotto was bland and lacking variety. Hoping the vegetables, mainly the squash, would brighten the dish, I found myself wanting. The squash was flavorless. Their saving grace was that the meat was perfectly cooked.

Dessert

We first ordered an apple dessert, but the pastry chef refused to serve it because the apples had not set. This may seem irritating, but I can respect their dedication to serving the best food possible. Instead we ordered:
Chocolate Hazelnut and Citrus
The presentation on this dessert was striking. The cake had been molded into a pyramid and drizzled with a light, orange citrus syrup. The chocolate mousse on top unfortunately had no difference in texture from the cake below. I loved the citrus sauce, but wanted it to be a more central part of the flavors. It was also very rich (which I enjoy), but not everyone has my sweet tooth.
I enjoyed this sweet treat with a robust cappuccino. This was served without any intricate foam art, but instead with rock sugar to offset the bold taste.


 

Throughout the meal, our server was extremely friendly. He made jokes and established a pleasant tone for our meal from the first moment we were seated. He had a partner in case he was busy with other tables, so our needs were always met. My water glass was never empty. His partner was just as willing to provide excellent service. He even escorted me to the restroom so I wouldn’t get lost!
Our main waiter showed remarkable knowledge of the menu. He was descriptive in providing the flavor profiles of the dishes. He also understood the preparation of each dish. I was very impressed.

 

Overall, I enjoyed my food and my meal. Personally, I prefer restaurants with a greater flair for creativity and experimentation, but Different Pointe of View has found a menu that works. I had expected much more from the entrees, but I did very much enjoy the appetizers and dessert. The view is so captivating that I couldn’t stop staring out the window. I would recommend this for an intimate dinner date or for late night drinks and dessert.

If you’d like to learn more about the restaurant or see the menu, check out their website:

Different Pointe of View

Price: $31-$50 per person

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Food: 3/5

Please note this is an older review from my previous blog.