China's on the rise, and I'm not talking about the global economy.
In Old Town Scottsdale, two Chinese restaurants opened within a month of each other late last year, and it's easy to predict that they're both gunning for a chunk of business from P.F. Chang's, a behemoth founded in Scottsdale that now boasts 201 locations nationwide. Who could blame them?
Jimmy Woo's and Sunshine Moon Peking Pub do have similarities, at least on paper. Both concepts were created by restaurant industry vets and celebrate nostalgia for old-school Chinese food in the sweet-and-sour-chicken-and-a-fortune-cookie sense, with extensive menus serving all those classic dishes you'd expect from a time-honored neighborhood spot. (However, if you're looking for serious ethnic food served by, um, actual Chinese people, you'll have to go elsewhere.)
Both spots are kid-friendly, with menus just for the little ones, and both have plenty of libations to keep grownups in good spirits.
But beyond that, the two restaurants contrast like yin and yang, the opposing, inseparable forces that define everything in the universe, according to the Chinese philosophical classic Tao Te Ching. Yin represents darkness, rest, and the female, while masculine yang is bright and energetic.
Translation: A relaxing, homey spot with tasty dishes versus a brash, trendy joint that doesn't have its food dialed in yet.
Jimmy Woo's is yang all the way. Created by partners Greg Donnally, Brian Chittenden, and executive chef Andrew Nam (the same folks behind nearby hotspots Stingray Sushi and Geisha A Go Go), it's sleek, loud, and open late. Hinged windows along the bright red bar open up the front of the building to the patio, making it an action-packed hub right on Scottsdale Road, in the heart of the entertainment district.
Walking through the door here feels like you're hitting up a nightclub (which, judging from the youthful scene, is what most patrons have on their agenda). Hostesses greet you in tight, tiny black outfits and glammed-out makeup, lead you to a table or round, black booth in the spacious dining room (perfect for seeing and being seen — there are no private nooks here), and hook you up with a menu of cheeky, fruity cocktails. At the back, there's a line of cooks working the woks in an open kitchen, while the far wall bears a giant abacus.
Without a doubt, Jimmy Woo's is a mighty fun watering hole, but as a restaurant, it needs work. Lobster curry, glazed in fragrant, creamy sauce, had an appealing flavor, but the meat was obscured by too much batter. Braised short ribs were fatty and chewy, served as one long strip of meat and bones — not chopstick-friendly in the least. After a few failed attempts to grab our waitress' attention, we had to flag down a busboy to ask for a knife. Later, our steamed bok choy was nearly cold before we could get someone to deliver soy sauce. Polished service would be a major plus here.
Mongolian chicken, a stir-fry of tender chunks of white meat, scallions, and ginger in sweet brown sauce, was a decent rendition of a take-out fave, while black tea noodle salad (chilled buckwheat noodles tossed with baked tofu, tomato, white mushroom, scallions, daikon, cucumber, and light sesame dressing) was refreshing yet filling.
But I was totally dismayed by the barbecue pork buns, which had a gummy, not-fully-cooked texture and yeasty taste. My adorable blond waitress blankly blinked at me and offered no apology when I complained. Thinking about the stellar char siu bao at Chandler's Phoenix Palace, I silently scolded myself for thinking I might find any hint of authenticity here and cried into my Singapore Sling. For dessert, I ignored the out-of-place flourless chocolate cake and fried banana and ordered another round of drinks.
Meanwhile, my experience at Sunshine Moon Peking Pub was darn pleasant, as cozy and mellow as I'd expect from the yin counterpart to in-your-face Jimmy Woo's, and more in line as a contender to take on P.F. Chang's.
Tucked into the building on Goldwater that used to house Bacon, it's in a quieter neighborhood and is owned by husband-and-wife team Dr. Julie Chandler and Rich Sullivan, who also own nearby 5th and Wine. Sullivan was also an investor in Humble Pie Pizzeria and helped create the original P.F. Chang's concept, while chef Emilio Morales was previously chef partner at P.F. Chang's. (A-ha!)
Upon arrival, I was greeted first by a friendly middle-aged dude who held the door open and then by a bartender, who also welcomed me. I didn't spot any scenesters but immediately noticed a mouthwatering aroma that permeated the whole dining room.
The lighting was dim, lending a sheen to dark wood tables and chairs, and in the middle of the room was a smiling statue of Daikoku, considered the god of food and good fortune in Japanese Buddhist tradition. (Yeah, Sunshine Moon Peking Pub is basically a Chinese restaurant, although it's dubbed "pan-Asian.") The only jarring thing was an odd musical soundtrack of Sting and Tom Jones and goofy pop-rock.
Pretty soon, though, I was grinning like that jolly statue. Warm, sweet-and-sour duck sauce and a plate of crispy wontons warded off hunger pangs as I looked over the menu. Later, I sank my teeth into a scrumptious banh mi that didn't remotely resemble a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, but was still very good, sort of like sausage burger atop sweet pulled pork in a brioche bun, with a side of pickled peppers and fried yucca chips.
Two differently named appetizers — Peking raviolis and shrimp dumplings — turned out to be nearly identical, except for the pork filling of the former. Luckily, I ordered one steamed and one pan-fried. Dunked into ginger-soy sauce, they hit the spot.
General's Chicken, juicy bird slathered in sweet, kicky red chile sauce, had just the right amount of spice to be mouthwatering. Shrimp in lobster sauce, on the other hand, was quite mild (as expected), and I liked the bits of black bean, egg, and water chestnut mixed in. The perfectly cooked shrimp were so fresh they snapped when I bit into them. And beef lo mein, a steaming mountain of slightly smoky noodles and succulent meat, was toothsome and flavorful.
Later in the evening, a manager stopped by to thank me and my friends for coming, and we got another hearty thank you on our way out the door. Between that and the likable food, I'd say Sunshine Moon is well on its way to becoming that beloved neighborhood standby that it aspires to be.
Or else — who knows? — it could be the next P.F. Chang's.