Mijo's Fusion has a twisty, sinuous history that you can't grasp instantly, and the menu is like that, too. There's a little Mexican, a little Asian and a little vegetarian, but none of it is like anything else you've had. That's thanks to the inventiveness of owner-chef Connie Sheen, whose menu is as unique as it is creative.
If you're looking for something special that goes beyond the same-old, this is the place.
You can get familiar standards like tacos, but Sheen recasts them by using fresh, novel ingredients and preparing them impeccably. More intriguing still are the dishes in which she combines unlikely ingredients for pairings you'd never imagine, like her zucchini stuffed with short rib. It's so unexpected that it becomes as much a mind-trip as a tasty meal, and that's what makes it such fun.
Any chef-driven restaurant reflects its kitchen guru's personality, but it's rare to meet a chef with a mindset and history as distinctive as Sheen's. A native of Taiwan, she moved here with her then-husband in 1988. She worked in computer science for a few years, but she yearned to do something more creative. Her father had been a cook in the military, and her family had a little home-style restaurant where they made everything from scratch, even their own soy milk and tofu from soy beans.
She got her feet wet in the restaurant business by buying a Schlotzsky's franchise, which she ran for eight years before buying the Mijo's on Park Row Drive in Arlington. The customers begged her to keep the fresh Mexican dishes they loved; she did, but she eventually introduced dishes from her childhood as well. And that's how her unique fusion was born.
Artsy, up-and-coming Magnolia Avenue is the perfect location for her culinary laboratory. She has given the space that was formerly Junsuree Thai a swanky makeover, with a dramatically swooping sculpture carved from poplar wood that divides the dining room from the bar. Behind that bar, there's a brand name: mixologist Cody Pittman, who has added a menu of zippy cocktails such as the ancho margarita ($8), with a dose of chile giving the tequila drink some eye-opening heat.
Fish tacos ($9.50) are a signature item, and Mijo's does 'em big, with soft corn tortillas enclosing a large chunk of whitefish such as grouper, topped with chopped lettuce and diced tomato; Spanish rice and refried black beans come on the side. Brisket tacos ($9.50 for two, $11 for three) come on flour tortillas instead, with tender chunks of meat topped with sautéed onions.
You can also get tacos with grilled salmon, tempura shrimp, Korean short rib or in a "street taco" version ($8.50) filled with barbacoa.
But it seems silly not to indulge in one-of-a-kind Sheen creations such as that stuffed zucchini ($12). A zucchini was sliced in half lengthwise and carved out in the middle, then topped with soft chunks of short rib. It came with a spicy red poblano-tomato sauce and square chunks of tender sweet potato -- such an unexpected treat. The zucchini was tender but with a welcome bit of firmness and body.
Starters included nifty gems such as the coconut shrimp roll ($9.50), which came off like a cross between a sushi roll and a wrap. A flour tortilla was wrapped tightly around a filling of coconut-battered shrimp, guacamole, Asian slaw and green rice, then cut into slices.
The tempura-battered jalapeños ($8) were a real kick. Fat, fresh peppers were enclosed in mashed yucca, golden and sweet, in place of the usual gloppy cheese filling, and bore a shaggy, crunchy crust that made the usual flaky tempura look weak and pitiful.
Mijo's offers a trio of "bowls" -- like stir-fries with rice -- that make a comforting one-pot meal. The ginger-serrano bowl ($9 with chicken and tofu, $10 with steak) was a sharp and spicy concoction containing mixed-grain rice with garbanzo beans, edamame (soy beans) and shredded bok choy. Even without an added protein, this was a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish.
Our ginger-serrano bowl came without the beans; our server quickly brought them to add, but the oversight fit with the quirky, slightly spacey character of the place. Mijo's has an off-kilter charm that makes you feel as if you've stepped through the looking glass. Connie is the queen, and it's a whimsical place to be.