May 27, 2014 Update: Miu’s has been reported closed pending a relocation.
When Van Halen released a two-disc greatest hits album, one that spanned both the David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar eras, the logical title was none other than “The Best of Both Worlds.” Yes, that was the name of one of the songs included on the compilation, but, more importantly, it was a reference to a collection that drew equally from two rival lead vocalists. In Tempe, the recently opened Chinese restaurant Miu’s Cuisine is trying its own “best of both worlds” approach with an authentic, voluminous menu that is roughly half Cantonese and half Sichuan.
|kung pao chicken|
Miu’s is at the east end of Tempe. In fact, it’s so far east that it would be easy to mistake the location for Mesa if not for the distinctive “T” street signs near the restaurant. The location on Apache falls within the small sliver of Tempe between the 101 Freeway and the canal that defines that city’s border with Mesa. Miu’s is conveniently on the same block as the Price – 101 Freeway / Apache Boulevard light rail station. The adjacent park-and-ride provides the best place to lock up a bike. Use the rack there and then traverse the street as a pedestrian at the crosswalk.
|view from the park-and-ride|
From the outside, Miu’s is little more than a bare box. Having neither windows nor a front door, the former Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge lacks street presence, and it’s certainly not the type of building Tempe is now encouraging along Apache. Nevertheless, the food’s so good that a quick walk down the driveway to the entrance in the rear is worthwhile. Inside, the dining room is neat but minimally decorated. An unused bar off to the side is used mainly to store boxes. You can see the clutter on the way to the restrooms, which are clean even if the route to them is messy.
|entrance in the back|
Much of the clientele speaks Chinese, and some staff are more proficient in English than others. Miu’s is clearly not trying to water things down for customers who might be happier at their neighborhood chop suey joint, but the servers are friendly and will answer questions about unfamiliar foods to the extent that an occasional language gap allows. Solo diners should be aware that there are no lunchtime combo specials on the menu. Visit with friends or family and be prepared to share everything around the table. That’s really the best way to enjoy Miu’s.
It’s also helpful to approach Miu’s with a determination to try regional specialties beyond the normal American Chinese comfort zone. To start, you can stick with a bit of familiarity by ordering an order of pan-fried pot stickers. Their filling is mild, but the accompanying sauce is more fiery than you’ll find elsewhere. Take that as a hint of the Sichuan flavor to come. Other appetizers include a scallion pancake, with a chewy texture and big chunks of green onion. Fresh cucumber is served cold in thick pieces with either a garlic sauce or a spicy one.
|cucumber with garlic|
Moving toward the entrees, the parallel themes of Cantonese and Sichuan food become even more apparent. Cantonese food is more familiar to most Americans. It’s the food of Hong Kong and makes abundant use of garlic and yellow chives in preparations that stress balance and variety over one single, dominant taste. Sichuan, on the other hand, is the cuisine of a province located closer to the heart of China. It’s often stereotyped in terms of dishes laden with big dried chile pepper pods, but it’s actually more nuanced, relying heavily on its own distinct flavor of Sichuan pepper.
The unique flavor is easy to differentiate from typical chile heat. Instead of presenting itself up front, the heat is subdued and takes the form of a tingling, numb sensation that follows an initial taste that is somewhat like lemon. This flavor is evident in one of the least accurately translated dishes, water-boiled fish (or beef). While the English language name implies a mild, poached entree, the actual item served is meat or fish in a complex, dark broth teeming with Sichuan pepper. There’s often chopped cilantro on top as an added flavor note.
|yu xiang eggplant|
Yu xiang eggplant is a vegetable-based dish that produces a similar sensation. The rich flavor of the sauce is an attraction in itself but does not mask the eggplant’s pulpy texture and earthy taste. Kung pao chicken is an unexpected star here. The usual American Chinese version in most restaurants is white meat with peanuts, bell peppers, and chiles. Miu’s version brings the heat, but balances it with a tart note from vinegar. There are few vegetables in the dish, but plenty of peanuts and scallions throughout to add to the robust mix of notes at play in this version of kung pao.
|sizzling rice cakes with seafood|
If all these intensely flavored and darkly sauced dishes sound like too much, they can be balanced from the Cantonese side of the menu. Sizzling rice cakes with seafood, which undergoes final assembly at the table, is a colorful assortment that resembles Rice Krispies treats tossed with fresh vegetables, big shrimp, pieces of fish, and slices of calamari. Simple meatless dishes such as snow pea shoots with garlic bring a boost in color and nutrition to the table. These are flavorful but at the same time offer a cleansing counterpoint to the Sichuan spice.
|snow pea leaves with garlic|
Of course, the ultimate palate cleanser is a good dessert, and Miu’s actually offers one in the form of sesame-filled rice balls in a sweet broth. It’s unconventional compared to the sweets at most local restaurants, but enables a pleasing light finish to what’s likely to have been a big meal. To drink, Miu’s offers tea, soda, and bottled beer, often just Tsingtao. It remains to be seen if the neglected bar will eventually be put to greater use. Without much Van Halen-style drama, Miu’s is already full of greatest hits with its “best of both worlds” version of Chinese regional cuisine.
2314 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281