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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Abyssinia Restaurant: Delicious Adventure

As a foodie, I make a point of trying as many unfamiliar foods as I can. I’ve had British, French, German, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and other cuisines from all around the world. I am least familiar with cuisine from Africa. Last year around the new year, I vowed to take more “tiny adventures.” This concept belongs to the Tiny Adventure Club, who encourages people to step out of their comfort zone. Trying Ethiopian food for the first time seemed like a good way to get started.

 
Abyssinia Restaurant & Cafe is a tiny hole-in-the-wall downtown down the street from the VA hospital in downtown Phoenix (7th St. & Indian School). It was a rainy night when I tried to hunt down the small restaurant, tucked into the corner of a nondescript strip mall. I must have driven past this place a million times and never noticed it. In fact, I passed by it the first time by accident. The sign on the building isn’t as clear, and I may have been distracted by a neighboring neon sign.
 
I was wary at first. The exterior doesn’t stand out, and the neighborhood isn’t the greatest. Stepping in from the cold rainy night was like being transported to a new world. The interior was brightly decorated. Every table was lit with a small candle. The portrait of an unfamiliar monarch hangs on the wall.

The tables were spacious, but there’s always something off-putting about the sticky plastic covers often placed over table mats.
There were others in the restaurant, but it was quiet. We were seated in a back corner for privacy. The staff seemed to consist of two people, a man and woman. Rather than feel ignored, the two seemed to do the work of five people. They visited often to check on us with bright smiles.
 
Fun fact: Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee. I ordered a traditional coffee ceremony. Naturally I had no idea what was in store. The female employee emerged from the kitchen with a hot skillet of coffee beans. She was roasting them by hand and had come to waft the strong, earthy scent for the table.
 
After checking the Yelp, it came to my attention that the female employee is the owner. She is a warm, friendly woman prepared for our unfamiliarity with her dishes. At her suggestion, we ordered an Azeb Gouda Mixed Platter. This way we could try a little of everything. Most Ethiopian dishes are served with a thin, not-quite sour bread made from fermented teff flour called injera. Atop our large injera were a variety of colorful dishes similar to the consistency of stew.
 
According to their menu, this dish offers a sample of zilzil tibs (braised beef with peppers), gomen besiga (beef with greens), quanta firfir (sun-dried meat sauteed with garlic, onion, and special butter), and Ethiopian cheese. I’ve done my best to identify each separate component. I don’t recognize every dish, so I wonder if they provided a unique platter to give us an authentic first experience. Extra injera is divided so you can scoop up one (or more!) of the colorful offerings.

 

 

The zil-zil tibs are located in the middle. It’s no wonder why they made it the star of the platter. It was by far my favorite, savory and a perfect consistency. I was afraid it might be mushy. At the bottom of the plate is the gomen besiga, slightly sour, slightly bitter greens reminiscent of collard greens. On the left is quanta firfir, providing a brighter element in a plate of fermented and sour dishes. The yellow dish consists of corn, which offered a sweetness to cleanse my palette.

This was my first time having Ethiopian food, so I know I’m definitely not the expert. However, I can tell you that I enjoyed every aspect of my meal. The restaurant was cozy and quiet, perfect for a more adventurous but still intimate date night. The staff was kind and accomodating to guests who are unfamiliar to their fare. The coffee was strong and rich, and the food was well balanced with a variety of flavors. Between the amount of food and the vehicle for eating (your hands and some bread), I’d highly recommend this for a group of friends looking to have fun and try something new.

If you’d like more information, check out their website!

Price: $10-$20 per person

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Food: 5/5

 

 

Pappadeux’s: Fresh Cajun Flavors

Finding fresh seafood is no easy feat in the desert. I’m known for my tendency to avoid seafood if I’m not sure of the source. How fresh can it be if you had to ship it in from somewhere else? High-end restaurants may be able to fly in same-day catches, but most places in the Valley lack that luxury. Even so, a Louisiana Cajun-style chain has earned a reputation for their spicy Southern-comfort seafood.
Pappadeux’s, located at Peoria and the I-17, is situated in a large building with an open layout. At night, lights illuminate a green courtyard out front with a fountain. Entering into the building brings about a change in scenery. Stuffed fish hang on the walls with kitschy pictures over red tables and chairs. Overall the dining area has a comfortable, casual atmosphere.
On an early Sunday afternoon, the restaurant was uncrowded, but grew busier as time passed. With the quality of service and food, I would assume it’s usually more crowded.

Our waitress was friendly and accommodated the waves of our party arriving separately. She has mastered her timing, never interrupting the flow of conversation or dining, yet always available when needed. Her knowledge of the menu was extensive. When I asked a more complicated question, she was willing and eager to ask the chef.
The comfortable atmosphere in combination with the friendly, well-timed service made the amazing food that much more enjoyable.

Appetizers

We started simple with some fried calamari and fried alligator, a dish I didn’t think we could get in Arizona. Both were fried to crispy perfection without an excess of grease. The meat inside was tender and juicy, a delicate balance between textures that I’ve never seemed to manage when frying my own food.
These choices may seem adventurous, but alligator tastes similar to any other white meat. Calamari is a bit chewy by nature, so if you dislike chewy textures I would avoid this item. Fortunately, our calamari was cooked without making the meat rubbery and hard to eat.
Both meats were served with sauces, a garlic aoli for the calamari and a spicy sauce for the alligator. While the sauces added an extra punch, the spices in the breading provided enough flavor to keep me from smothering the meat in sauce.

Entrees

The menu has a diverse selection of entrees from catfish to lobster. Keep in mind, if you don’t care for seafood, your options are limited. It’s called Pappadeaux’s Seafood Kitchen, so if you’re not there for the fish, why are you even there?
I can honestly say I’ve never had fish this good in the Valley. When I ate seafood in Maine, the key was to rely on pure, natural flavors; all you needed was a little butter. Pappadeux’s, on the other hand, utilizes the freshness of the fish combined with a powerful array of herbs and spices.

Catfish Etouffe

1. Glazed Cedar Plank Salmon
This was the dish that caught everyone’s eye. It’s a beautiful pink cut of salmon served on a wooden block of cedar. This is a common way to cook fish that imbues the fish with a smoky flavor. The asparagus was crisp, not overcooked or mushy whatsoever. The salmon was a beautiful amber color from the mustard glaze. Often when salmon is overcooked, you end up with a distinct fishy taste. This fish was fork-tender and cooked to perfection with a balance between the marinade and its natural flavor.

2. Catfish with Red Beans and Rice

This is a classic New Orleans dish, so I was hoping for some originality. Instead, I got a rather plainly presented dish of spiced, fried catfish with beans and rice. It wasn’t as spicy as I was hoping, but it’s obvious the kitchen has mastered the art the fish fry. The bland presentation left much to be desired, but the flavor is perfect for the picky eater. If you were looking for your favorite Louisiana meal, you’ll get what you ordered. This dish is a classic for a reason, but don’t expect a revelation.

3. Grilled Costa Rican Mahi

This was my personal favorite and without competition, the best fish I’ve ever had. The fish was perfectly cooked, warm, buttery, and moist. Hot peppers added a bit of an extra kick, but light enough not to disrupt the flavor of the fish. I wouldn’t even put lemon on it. It cut through without difficulty, but it didn’t fall apart. I immensely enjoyed the pieces of crab meat, which added a firmer texture to the dish. The fish was served in neatly atop some creamy grits and buttery squash. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life

Desserts


 

1. Andes Mint Cheesecake

If you’re like me, the best part about Olive Garden was the Andes mints at the end of the meal. Pappadeux’s has taken this a step further, making these minty treats into a rich, creamy cheesecake. The color is not a bright green, which I would have considered off-putting. The chocolate cookie crust helped cut through the mint, preventing a “one-note” flavor. I enjoyed the cool mint taste after a meal laden with spice. Plus, who doesn’t like a dessert made out of their favorite candy?

2. Praline Bread Pudding Souffle

This souffle embodies the soul of the South. Bourbon and praline are two classic Southern flavors. Together they create a savory-sweet twist on an underrated dessert. The souffle, served in a ramekin, stays hot, but gets a little mushy toward the bottom. The crunch on top should keep .p .

3. Banana Pudding

The banana pudding would not be my first choice when offered the other options on the menu. They did their best to play with new additions to a plain dessert. Whole slices of banana and vanilla wafers add extra texture and a more natural flavor than banana extract.

Pappadeux’s was a delightful meal full of flavorful spices and fresh seafood, a true gem in a this dry, hot desert. I would recommend this bright restaurant for family dinners and gatherings. It may be suitable for a fun date with good food, but it’s a down-home, comfortable atmosphere. You can impress with the food, but not the atmosphere. You are paying for fresh seafood, so larger parties can end up with a hefty bill.
To find out more about Pappadeux’s, check out their website.
Price: $30 and under per person
Atmosphere: 4/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 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.