With all the new restaurants that have opened in downtown Phoenix, it’s easy to forget some of the pioneers who came first when the area was largely deserted after dark. One of the earliest arrivals was Fate, a pan-Asian restaurant near Roosevelt Row operated by chef Johnny Chu. Its follow-up, Sens, was just a few blocks away. In the intervening years, Chu moved north to Midtown and then farther up to Northern Avenue. With the pandemic having forced a reset, the chef has now come back south to a nearly Downtown location with his newest venture Mifan.
Mifan is situated in the ground floor of the Muse apartments, across the street from the McDowell/Central light rail station. Muse is a large residential development that fills a long-vacant lot on a prime corner, and its developers deserve credit for filling its retail space with local tenants that add interest to this crossroads where Midtown meets Downtown. Clever bike racks, some in the shape of Arizona and others forming the letters P-H-X, are found on the sidewalk and in a shaded area just around the corner from Mifan’s entrance on Central Avenue.
In terms of both menu and ambience, Mifan is a continuation of motifs seen at Chu’s earlier ventures. Mifan’s checks all the usual boxes for a Chu restaurant with contemporary decor, modern lounge music, and food that draws heavily from Chinese influences along with a few additional touches from countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan. Fans of the chef will see this as a welcome return to form. Of course, the inverse may be true: People who did not enjoy previous places like Fate or Sens may not find enough is different here to change their minds.
The restaurant’s entrance is marked by a small sign. Look for window treatments that look like white Swiss cheese with circular cutouts of various sizes. Inside, the tabletops are covered with fictional images of international newspapers like the Shanghai News and L’Humanité. Elaborate tile adorns the counter at a centrally located bar and the floor underneath it. The attention to detail and design mirrors in many ways the location directly across the street from the Phoenix Art Museum. A patio provides an option for outdoor seating with a view of that institution.
The emphasis at Mifan is claypot cooking. Most entrees are prepared and served in ceramic vessels that can withstand high heat. The result is an attractive presentation and a cooking style falling somewhere between the high heat of a wok and the steadiness of roasting or braising. The restaurant opened with a partially vegan approach. Tofu was the main protein source, along with some chicken and shrimp. The approach has since broadened with recent specials featuring steak with a cumin seasoning and crispy salmon with a pineapple ginger sauce.
The soup gyoza that Chu fans may remember from Sens is back, albeit in a slightly different format. These dumplings are more like Chinese xia long bao than true gyoza with crescent shapes and crimped edges. Nomenclature aside, they’re enjoyable and fun to eat. Each dumpling within the order of four is served in its own miniature vessel. Inside the wrapper, a ground pork filling swims in broth. Outside, there is a sauce of vinegar and soy sauce. The moment the first bite is taken, those tastes meld, resulting in a blend of complementary flavors.
Other starters are found in fairly familiar territory with items like crispy tofu or cauliflower drumsticks, both served with a white sesame sauce for dipping. Additional choices include truffle butter edamame and pork gyoza. A variety of noodle soups provide for either a shared appetizer or a hearty meal for one. The hot and sour contains rice ovalettes, cherry tomatoes, pineapple, baby corn, tofu, carrots, and mushrooms in a tamarind broth that is semi-spicy and tangy while still retaining nuance. A lemongrass noodle soup concentrates even more on the chili heat.
The claypot entrees are offered in seven different variations. Many feature dark sauces like the mala spices, which is flavorful although not as spicy as its origins might suggest. The Cantonese Black Dragon emphasizes notes of ginger and black bean sauce. The HK Typhoon claypot, on the other hand, has a lighter, almost minimalistic feel derived from aromatics and Sichuan peppercorns. The claypots offer a choice of tofu or chicken, with the possibility of shrimp for an extra charge, and most are accompanied by white rice and steamed broccoli.
There are two exceptions to this format. The sizzling shrimp dish comes with a steamed bun in lieu of the usual bowl of rice. The onions and dark black pepper sauce covering the shrimp somehow manage not to obscure the additional tastes of mint and pineapple within the vessel. The other outlier is the bo zai fan, in which the rice is combined in the pot before serving with slices of Chinese sausage, cauliflower, and broccoli. The result is a satisfying layer of crunchy grains at the bottom of the pot where the rice has made contact with the hot ceramic surface.
Mifan offers one dessert: beignets with a bit of strawberry preserves. This should suffice as a bit of sweetness after the savory and spicy elements of the meal, but if an alternative is desired, a gelato shop is next door. Mifan serves a selection of specialty beers from Japan, as well as domestic craft beers, wine, sake, and a few vodka cocktails in addition to oolong tea. From both a geographical point of view and a culinary one, Mifan feels like a resurrection of Chu’s earlier restaurants with a few updates. After the pandemic and time away, it’s a welcome homecoming.
1616 N. Central Ave. #102, Phoenix AZ 85004