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Asian in the Far East 

Wei serves pan-Asian dishes that one can savor

I spent my first 15 months in Tucson living in an apartment on the pretty-darned-far east side, and I was not impressed with the variety of restaurants in my 'hood.

Now that I am a mortgage-carrying citizen of the central part of town, I don't get over to my old stomping grounds much anymore. But whenever I do, I am stunned at the number of new stores and restaurants popping up on the east side. Sadly, most of these places are cookie-cutter chain places--but not all of them. And at least one of these new restaurants--a little, six-month-old Asian place tucked between a Safeway and a Family Dollar on Golf Links Road--is good news for eastsiders.

Garrett and I first visited Wei Asian Café on a recent weekday evening. Our friend Mark joined us, and we had the restaurant to ourselves for the entire meal (other than one woman picking up a takeout order). Wei occupies a small, square strip-mall space, with pretty typical artwork on the walls (although I was a fan of the large, metal crustaceans on the west wall). A sparsely populated aquarium greets customers as they walk in, and colorful hanging lanterns dot the ceiling. Bird and running-water sounds mix with mellow music to create a somewhat odd soundtrack. The most interesting décor element: The fluorescent lights are tinted to look red and blue. I asked why this was, and one of the employees noted it was because America's colors are red, white and blue.

The menu, like at many Asian places, is huge. There are 45 seafood-dish options, with 22 starring chicken, eight pork, four duck and an impressive 20 with vegetables only. The menu is truly pan-Asian, with dishes attributed to China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

For appetizers, we split an order of the steamed pork dumplings (six for $5.95) and the Thai-style beef salad ($6.95). For main courses, Garrett chose the shrimp with Szechwan ($8.25) with a small hot and sour soup ($2). Mark ordered the sizzling three delight ($8.50), and I picked the sesame chicken (our server said it's one of the more popular entrées) as part of a Hong Kong dinner ($11.95), with an egg roll (although the menu in most places says "egg foll"), a crab puff, a fried shrimp, a fried wonton, BBQ pork fried rice and a soup; I picked the wonton soup.

The appetizers were delivered promptly, followed by the soups. The salad was delicious--cucumbers, peppers, mushrooms, onions and greens (predominantly iceberg lettuce), among other things, were topped with a decent amount of beef and a tart, vinegary dressing. The dumplings were only OK, as the pork in the middle was surprisingly lacking in taste, and they had a tendency to fall apart.

The soups were both good. Garrett enjoyed his hot and sour, which was not too hot, and I relished my wonton soup. With greens, mushrooms, carrots and flavorful pork along with the wontons, the soup hit the right note.

Our main courses ranged from so-so to great. The so-so: Garrett's shrimp with Szechwan. It featured carrots, peas, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts swimming with the shrimp in a sauce that Garrett described as like a "hot sweet and sour" sauce. He had mixed feelings about it, and based on the bite I stole, I agreed: With so many ingredients, the dish lacked nuance, and came across as a little too sweet. Meanwhile, Mark enjoyed the sizzling three delight. The chicken, shrimp, beef and vegetables (including baby corn, mushrooms, carrots, peppers and broccoli) in a brown sauce was spooned on a sizzling hot plate at the table (hence the name). It was a bit tastier than the Szechwan dish, but it came across as too sweet, as well. The only dish that didn't seem over-sweetened was my sesame chicken. Surrounded by bright green broccoli, the chicken was pretty close to perfect (although it wasn't spicy at all, despite the menu saying it was). The accompanying fried stuff--egg roll, crab puff, shrimp, rice and wonton--was all pretty standard. They suffered from a lack of dipping sauces.

We left Wei pretty satisfied. The same could be said after our second visit, too.

Garrett and I returned for lunch on a weekend day, along with Garrett's visiting best friend, Bryan. This time, we actually had company at two other tables. We all honed in on the lunch specials ($4.29 to $5.29, served daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; they all come with an egg roll, fried shrimp, a soup and either BBQ pork fried rice or steamed rice). Garrett picked the Mongolian beef ($4.29), his Asian restaurant standby. Bryan ordered the orange-flavored chicken ($5.29), and I went with the garlic chicken ($4.29).

Our server delivered a bowl of fried wonton strips with some sweet and sour sauce--a treat we didn't get during our dinner visit. The combination was simple yet enjoyable. Soon after, we received our soups. My hot and sour and Bryan's wonton followed the same form as on our previous visit. Garrett's egg drop soup was pretty standard, but good. Rather quickly, the rest of the food arrived, and we commenced eating.

Garrett liked the Mongolian beef, served on a bed of crispy noodles. It was full of flavor, although Garrett was disappointed that the dish was not very spicy-hot--again, even though the menu advertised it as hot. Bryan savored his orange-flavored chicken. We agreed that it was not overly sweet like some restaurants' versions of the dish (I'm looking at you, Panda Express), and that its only serious flaw was that the coating was a bit too tough and doughy. Nonetheless, he ate it up. My garlic chicken, with bamboo shoots, onions, bell peppers and other veggies in a brown sauce, was OK. I can't pinpoint a specific flaw with it, but I doubt I'd order it again. As for the fried accompaniments, they were all fine--but again, a dipping sauce or two would help them immensely.

If I still lived on the east side, it's likely that I'd be getting food from Wei at least once a week. By Tucson standards, this is an above-average Asian food place. Not all the food's perfect, but much of it is quite good. Plus, the service is competent, and the prices are reasonable. Thanks in part to Wei Asian Café, the restaurant selection on the far east side is definitely improving.

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