Speaking as a north-side resident, the fact is: The farther you go from Colorado Springs' city center, the more likely you'll find an independently run restaurant in a strip mall.
Now, there is nothing quaint about being in a strip mall. These owners have to try to distinguish themselves, to rise above their generic locales. To succeed, they must first understand their community and find a niche.
When my family and I walked into Mu-Shu's Fresh Chinese Cuisine, embedded in the Stetson Hills Shopping Center, co-owner Kimberly Liu greeted us cheerily.
With a knowing smile, she pre-occupied my 4-year-old with pre-made beginner chopsticks, and gave us a quick introductory spiel ending with, "Call ahead, use curbside."
Clear enough: Mu-Shu's aims to be a convenient option for families on the go.
It's also clear that, while Mu-Shu's modern, open kitchen, counter seating and smooth red, white and black dining room are nice, you're inside a fast-food restaurant. Dine-in or take-out, all items are served in plastic foam containers. The tables are small, and if you plan on sharing, only generic paper plates are available. Employees hand out windshield decals, complete with Mu-Shu's digits.
But on to the food. The trimmed-down menu offers up traditional, if common fare: dishes lightly battered, braised or stir-fried with varying vegetables and proteins.
The chicken Mu-Shu wraps ($7.50) won me over with the glass noodles, stir-fried with a mountain of cabbage, long rice, wood ear mushrooms, egg and onions. Accompanied by four wraps (not enough for the portion size) and a hoisin sauce, the mix of tender chicken and still-crunchy vegetables was pleasantly fresh and light. I continued eating long after I used up the wraps, and still had leftovers for lunch the next day.
About the peppered beef ($7.50), strips of lean beef, coated in pepper with red and yellow bell peppers and onions, my husband said, "It's stir-fry, good, but nothing special."
The large veggie spring rolls ($3.75), with typical cabbage filling, were less greasy than I've seen at other restaurants, speaking to signs promoting "100 percent canola oil" (which contains less saturated fat). But call it unhealthy living I missed the extra crispiness and shiny fingers. Maybe a little more saturated fat isn't such a bad thing.
Mu-Shu's also offers gluten-free products upon request and a healthier brown-rice option, although my serving was slightly undercooked and a tad crunchy.
Needless to say, Mu-Shu's didn't completely bowl us over, but most of our dishes were competently made and the prices were very reasonable: Nothing exceeded $9.
It's also worth noting that Liu, who owns the restaurant with her husband Peter, invited us back for Mu-Shu's egg roll-making class, where kids ages 4 and up can learn to roll their own for just $5. Suddenly, I was envisioning a very different dinner at my house.
Of course, the Lius might prefer that people with egg-roll urges come to their restaurant to satisfy them. But they know you don't often find people ripping across town for the fare at any strip-mall restaurant.
Mu-Shu's has assessed its own community and succeeds in doing what it set out to do: offering fast-moving families a convenient and healthier alternative to burgers.
Mu-Shu's Fresh Chinese Cuisine
6064 Stetson Hills Blvd., 575-9000, mushus.com
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.