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Mesa, AZ Mini-reviews: Asian Cafe Express and Grill El Quetzal

silverbear Apr 26, 2007 06:05 PM

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
(480) 668-5910

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
(480) 615-1588

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

  1. HomeCookKirsten Apr 26, 2007 11:55 PM

    Thanks Silverbear!

    Haven't been to either, so this is helpful.

    1. ccl1111 Apr 30, 2007 11:21 PM

      we do asian cafe express regularly when the pocket is tight. we seem to have hit upon many of our favorites from the hand written signs posted on the wall that silverbear mentions. wife is a big fan of the hot pots. had some great salt & pepper pork ribs?, some great 5 spice pork, and the ginger/garlic/salt dip/spread that comes with the boiled chicken is addictive.

      1. b
        Booklegger451 May 1, 2007 12:25 PM

        I wonder if El Grill Quetzal is related to Maya Quetzal, the Guatemalan place here in Tucson. (Also very good, btw)

        1 Reply
        1. re: Booklegger451
          silverbear May 1, 2007 10:05 PM

          I'm not sure. It might be coincidence. I think a lot of things Guatemalan have "Quetzal" in the name.

          I have eaten at Maya Quetzal, by the way, and agree that it is very good. It does much better business than Grill El Quetzal due to its location in the heart of the Fourth Avenue business district.

        2. jasonaz May 1, 2007 03:10 PM

          Very interesting, I had no idea we had a Guatemalan restaurant so close, I'm going to have to try them out in the near future.

          I like your blog; keep up the good work. :)

          1 Reply
          1. re: jasonaz
            silverbear May 1, 2007 10:06 PM

            Thanks for the kind words. As for Grill El Quetzal, better to get there soon. I'm not sure how much longer it can stay in business unless there's a rush hour I haven't discovered yet.

          2. w
            werewolf May 3, 2007 07:55 AM

            Thanks for the good reviews. I'm going to try Asia Cafe. I didn't know about the big plans for Dobson and Main.

            1. d
              Doug in Mesa May 4, 2007 05:46 PM

              Silverbear, this is a good find. We had a late lunch at Grill El Quetzal today. My wife had Talapia and I had a thin cut of very flavorful steak. We were given chips and a tasty but mild pureed salsa to begin our meal. We were offered some hot salsa which we accepted. It appeared to be habanero based but wasn't incendiary. The ice tea seemed to be sweetened with a fruit of some sort but we forgot to ask what. It was absolutely delicious. The woman working there was delightful. Her English is better than my rotten Spanish. I speak Portuguese and she and I were having fun trying to converse and compare languages. The really good news is that there were other customers coming and going during our visit so hopefully this grill will survive. We will certainly be back, and soon. We also have eaten at Maya Quetzal in Tucson. It is tasty also but I doubt that the restaurants are related. Just to mention... there is a Peruvian restaurant just around the corner on Alma School behind Frys. It also is a worthwhile stop. The only other Peruvian restaurant that I'm aware of in AZ is in Tucson on Oracle but I don't recall the name. We did enjoy it but it's pricy by comparison.

              7 Replies
              1. re: Doug in Mesa
                silverbear May 4, 2007 06:49 PM

                I'm so glad to hear that you liked Grill El Quetzal -- and that there were multiple customers during your visit. I was the sole customer during both of mine. I've heard that there is a cluster of Peruvian immigrants in Mesa, so I'm not surprised to hear there's a Peruvian restaurant there. I'll have to give the place on Alma School a try sometime. There was actually a Peruvian restaurant in Prescott for a while, but it went out of business recently.

                1. re: silverbear
                  d
                  Doug in Mesa May 5, 2007 04:41 AM

                  The restaurant I mentioned is Rincon Peruano at 103 S Alma School. The owner/cook is the former cook of the Peruvian Palace at the same location. We like the papas rellenos (stuffed mashed potatos.) It is listed as an appetizer but can easily be considered a meal. We've enjoyed their soups as well and everything is reasonably priced. We hope that they as well as Grill El Quetzal survive. We had heard of Machu Picchu in Prescott but didn't make it there before their demise.

                2. re: Doug in Mesa
                  b
                  Booklegger451 May 5, 2007 01:49 PM

                  The Peruvian restauranton Oracle (in Tucson) is Candela, and they have the best anticuchos I've ever had.

                  1. re: Booklegger451
                    w
                    werewolf May 10, 2007 12:57 PM

                    I wanted to like Asian Cafe. The people were very friendly and the sign said no MSG - but my chow fun dish was about 60% bean sprouts. :(

                    1. re: werewolf
                      ccl1111 May 10, 2007 07:02 PM

                      bummer. we've definitely had good chow fun there as we order it every meal for our dairy allergic daughter. who knows? for comparison, we like the chow fun at best hong kong, tao garden, c-fu, cyclo & noodles ranch (though it was a bit different here).

                      1. re: ccl1111
                        w
                        werewolf May 10, 2007 09:59 PM

                        But nobody makes chow fun as good as the Wo Hop basement dive on Mott Street in NY Chinatown - except Hong Fat also on Mott Street, but HF is long gone now...

                        Does Asian cafe ever make your chow fun with a lot of bean sprouts, CC?

                        1. re: werewolf
                          ccl1111 May 10, 2007 11:38 PM

                          definitely don't short on the bean sprouts but we've had ample beef and noodles every time so far. i'd be happy to try wo hop's anytime! if i get to nyc anytime soon, i'll definitely look it up! : )

                3. don giovanni Jun 27, 2007 11:35 PM

                  I finally made it to El Quetzal. I took my time and stayed for a little over an hour (about 630 to 730) and I was the only customer in that time. The food was delicious. I had the carne adobada (spelling?), to see if it compared to adovada from Dick's or other SW places. It was very different. It was sliced super thin and the flavor was somewhere between Mexican and Cajun (at least, that's the best I can do to describe it); slight vinegar flavor; served with white rice, black beans and a small salad. The Beans were pureed, the rice had a little corn and peas in it. The salad was lettuce, cucumbers, tomato and avocado. I also ordered a coke; they have the ones in the glass bottles from Mexico, which I always enjoy. Total bill was about 12 or 13 with tax.

                  I sure hope they are making money. They actually looked kind of surprised when I walked in. I will definitely go back.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: don giovanni
                    silverbear Jun 28, 2007 07:52 AM

                    Glad you liked it and thanks for posting the update. Both times I've eaten there, I've been the sole customer. I do hope this place makes it.

                    1. re: silverbear
                      d
                      Doug in Mesa Jun 28, 2007 08:33 AM

                      I have been there 5 or 6 times now, always around lunch time 11-1:30. There are always other patrons coming and going during my visits but the place is never "packed." The exotic-tasting ice tea on one reason we keep stopping.

                      1. re: silverbear
                        don giovanni Jun 28, 2007 10:26 AM

                        Sometimes a good place can make it if just a few people keep going back. A place in my hometown serves the "best" (biased) Mexican food I've ever had. I almost never saw them busy in about 15 years of eating there, but the same people who loved the food kept coming back. When the owners finally decided to call it quits, a young couple who couldn't stand to see it close bought the place, and now they're serving the same food.

                    2. l
                      lchamale Feb 1, 2008 09:10 AM

                      I wrote a long review but not sure where it went! :( So here's another summarized attempt...

                      I'm guatemalan, and at least on the East valley, there isn't many guatemalans, except my cousin and i. hahaha... So it was with no surprise that when i found this place, a short drive from work, that i have taken groups of people there. I see i'm not the only one who thought it strange that the place was not that busy.....

                      About the food:
                      My reason for going is i miss my mom's Guatemalan Tamales...growing up in L.A. and living in Phoenix, AND HAVING A LAST NAME CHAMALE.....it is always a topic of conversation to talk about the difference between mexican tamales (we call those "chuchitos" or little doggies, because their little balls of masa) compared to the square, less consistency masa of Guatemalan Tamales.
                      So when i went to QuetzalGrill (which is the national bird of Guatemala, it is green with a red belly) i found it very enjoyable to see them on the menu. They have pork and chicken tamales, i had chicken and it was very very delicious.

                      Although pupusas are not a Guatemalan-originated dish, they are very popular in Chapinlandia (aka Guatemala). Kind of like tacos in America... :)

                      The pupusas were very tasty with all the spices and smells of the accompanying "curtido" (pickled) topping of grated cabbage and carrots, as well as the salsa de tomate (tomato salsa).

                      Both times i have gone there have been for lunch time (from work), and have sticked to the quote-unquote appetizers of pupusas and tamales....i have yet to drive back from queen creek and bring my family there for a dinner time meal.

                      There is one "slight inconvenience" of cash only, but if it is thought out ahead, it is not a biggie. The service is very friendly and it was nice to talk about "the old country" with someone FROM the old country for a change. I felt at home and enjoyed the pleasantries.

                      I do hope more and more people visit it, even if is just for the pupusas or tamales because i would like to see this place continue to exist. I have been there 2 weeks in a row, friday is our team's "eat out day", and i may end up going there today again! Hahahaha.....but i don't want to be the sole suporter of this sole guatemalan restaurant in east valley.

                      BTW, the black beans which are served as a side dish with most entrees are ever-so-authentic, they mentally took me back to my grandfather's farmhouse, and i could visualize the white bulls walking by! :) That's how good it tasted!

                      Buen Provecho (bon apettit)

                      Luis in Tempe

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: lchamale
                        silverbear Feb 1, 2008 09:14 AM

                        Thanks for the update. Did you notice during your most recent visit if the restaurant is now serving beer? Last time I was there (around Christmas), the application for a liquor license was pending and our server suggested the license might be granted in January.

                      2. h
                        Hombre Sep 21, 2009 01:18 PM

                        I stopped by today hoping to try some pupusas, but it looks like El Quetzal has closed. Instead, I had an excellent mo pa tofu at Asian Express. I’ll go back to try some of their noodle dishes.

                        There’s a Mi Pueblo market opening in the same strip mall.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Hombre
                          silverbear Sep 21, 2009 01:47 PM

                          Yes, Grill El Quetzal has been replaced by a Vietnamese Restaurant called Blue Moon.

                          The market was supposed to open in May. I hope it's still a go.

                          ACE is the same as it ever was: cheap and delicious

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