The intersection of Dobson and Main on the west side of Mesa has seen its share of decline over the years. The area, which includes the site of the former Tri-City Mall, is now in a state of transition. While there is still blight in evidence, there is also new construction planned, with a park-and-ride facility for the new light rail line slated for the north side of Main, along with a new Asian-themed shopping center known as Mekong Plaza being developed on the southwest corner. This shopping center will feature an Asian grocery to rival Lee Lee and the Super L Ranch Market (formerly 99 Ranch Market). Not wanting to wait for those projects to be completed, I recently visited two restaurants in a half-deserted shopping center on the southeast corner of Dobson and Main. Both offer terrific food right now even as the City of Mesa and private developers try to turn the neighborhood around.
Asian Cafe Express
1911 W Main St., Mesa, AZ 85201
Dobson Road in Mesa and Chandler is gradually becoming a center of Asian cuisine in the East Valley. Large clusters of Asian restaurants already exist at Dobson and Southern and at Dobson and Warner. At Dobson and Main, Asian Cafe Express offers one of the best values in Cantonese food in the East Valley. Asian Cafe Express looks unimpressive from the street. At first glance, it appears to be a standard strip-mall Americanized Chinese restaurant. The sign facing the parking lot boasts the type of uninteresting rice bowl specials that are found throughout the area.
Inside, the restaurant is completely different. While familiar items are available as lunch specials, the menu also features hot pots, congee, chow fun, noodle soups, and a variety of more intriguing Cantonese dishes. In addition to the printed menu, there are numerous signs, many of them hand-written, on the walls describing even more interesting items such as beef tripe soup and snow pea leaves.
It appears that Asian Cafe Express has risen above its fast-foodish name and image due to the influence of owner Michael Leung, who oversaw the kitchen for many years at the Gourmet House of Hong Kong in Central Phoenix. Prices are inexpensive, and the decor is stark. Service is friendly and prompt. An interesting condiment bar provides a variety of hot and savory sauces for customers to add to their orders. No alcohol is served, and the beverage selection is limited to tea and soda.
Grill El Quetzal
1933 W Main St, Mesa, AZ 85021
Grill El Quetzal is a Guatemalan restaurant located in the same shopping center as Asian Cafe Express, but in a less busy corner next to a tobacco store. Despite the unappealing location, the situation improves the moment one enters the restaurant. The decor is spartan and limited to a few tourist posters of Guatemala. Still, the room is clean and tidy, and soap operas in Spanish play on a corner television.
Guatemalan food is in some ways similar to El Salvadoran food, which is served at Eliana's and a few other restaurants in Central Phoenix. The food is flavorful but generally not spicy. Corn tortillas, fish, shrimp, potatoes, and rice are all prominent, but beans are not emphasized. One menu highlight is the arroz valienciana, which as its name suggests, resembles paella; however the inclusion of corn tortillas gives the dish a nice Central American touch. Pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with meat or cheese, are an appetizer that can stand on their own as a meal, particularly when topped with the accompanying condiments.
Grill El Quetzal accepts only cash and does not serve alcohol. Some interesting beverages are available, including horchata and tamarindo. A favorite drink is the ensalada, which is a sort of fruit juice cocktail with bits of fresh fruit in the glass. It's a beverage one enjoys with both a straw and a spoon.
Note: Asian Cafe Express is never full, but it appears to be doing reasonably well. Grill El Quetzal, despite offering solid food and friendly service, has been inexplicably deserted both times I have eaten there. If Guatemalan food appeals to you, this might be a place to try before it disappears.
Map showing locations of restaurants: http://tinyurl.com/yqho35
More mini-reviews and photos at my blog, PHX Rail Food: http://phxrailfood.blogspot.com
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