Max's Mukhaase in Mesa: West African Cuisine in the Southeast Valley

Baked tilapia with banku, a fermented corn dish that's popular in Ghanian cuisine.
Baked tilapia with banku, a fermented corn dish that's popular in Ghanian cuisine.
Lauren Saria

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Max's Mukhaase Location: 1245 W. Guadalupe Road, Mesa Open: About three weeks Eats: West African Price: $15 under/person

African cuisine is by no means widespread in Phoenix, but those who know where to look can fairly easily enjoy spongy, crepe-like injera from Ethiopia and the savory-sweet meat pie called bastilla from Morocco.

When it comes to finding West African specialties like banku, a fermented corn and cassava dough, however, your options become limited. In fact, one of the only places you'll be able to find that dish may be at the newly opened Max's Mukhaase in Mesa.

See also: BP Street Cafe Brings Affordable Malaysian Food to Tempe

Located in a strip mall — in a neighborhood well known for its Asian dining options nonetheless — the restaurant specializes specifically in food from Ghana. Owner and chef, Max, emigrated from that country to the United States and worked as an engineer at Intel prior to opening his own restaurant. He says cooking has always been a passion.

In addition to offering catering services (something Max says he's been doing on the side for a while), the restaurant serves a brief but diverse menu of hearty Ghanaian dishes.

Unfortunately it's not exactly a user-friendly situation unless you're somewhat versed in Ghanaian cuisine. Though the menu includes a list of ingredients under each item, a description such as "corn, tilapia fish, pepper sauce" doesn't quite do justice to the reality of the dish.

The Banku, Kenkey & Tilapia (that's the one descried above) entrée ($11.99) includes a whole, baked tilapia and a side of banku, or kenkey, the fermented corn and cassava side dish that's prevalent in Ghanaian cuisine. It arrives covered in plastic wrap to keep it warm, as Max explained to us when he delivered the food. You're definitely going to want to remove that.

 

Goat stew with peas and rice from Max's Mukhaase in Mesa.
Goat stew with peas and rice from Max's Mukhaase in Mesa.
Lauren Saria

Other sides include a savory pepper sauce that's spicier than it looks and a lighter tomato-based condiment. The plate also includes sliced raw tomatoes, onions, and avocado.

The banku may remind you of Hawaiian poi, the pounded taro dish that can also be fermented, with a nutty but mostly bitter flavor that's one you probably have to learn to love. Combining the banku, chile paste, avocado, and fish will reward you with a balanced bite.

And if a whole fish doesn't sound like an appealing meal, then the Goat Stew with waakye, gari, and salad ($11.99) would be a safer option. Waayke is a Ghanaian dish that combines black-eyes peas and rice, in this case, covered in the same spicy pepper sauce mentioned above and topped with a massive hunk of pepper sauce-rubbed goat. Though spicy, this combination of meat, rice, and peas would be hard not to like.

The side dishes of "salad" (more like a creamy coleslaw), cold spaghetti, and avocado chunks seem arbitrary, but do nothing to take away from the pleasant flavors of the dishes main components.

Max's menu also offers two vegetarian options, one of which is a rich stew of stuffed zucchini in a peanut butter sauce ($4.99). Crowded with tender cauliflower and carrots, the stew highlights hunks of hollowed out zucchini that's filled with rice. The peanut butter sauce leans more toward savory than sweet, and it's also lighter than you might expect.

For the average diner, a trip to Max's Mukhaase pretty much guarantees a culinary adventure. And if you're lucky, you'll even get to catch some Ghanian tv, which Max had playing on one of the two televisions in the dining room during our visit.

For vegetarians, Max's offers a dish of stuffed zucchini in peanut butter sauce.
For vegetarians, Max's offers a dish of stuffed zucchini in peanut butter sauce.
Lauren Saria

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