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

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