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In Search of a Space 

Two ethnic restaurants carve up delicious food and plenty of parking

Oh, Restaurant Reviewer, you think. What a sweet gig.

Ha.

As that wet, bitterly cold storm moved into town two weeks ago, I was downtown--by myself, on my day off--to check out a Middle Eastern lunch spot I'd been supposed to hit Christmas week, when it had turned out to be "closed for the holidays." On that also-chilly occasion I'd been accompanied by my son and my friend James Reel. We'd adjourned across the street to Monkey Box (group verdict: good food, lousy music) and had a fine if unproductive meal.

This time the joint I was committed to reviewing was closed as in "CLOSED," with mop-buckets and boxes littered about the dark interior. I'd had to park five blocks down Stone Avenue and it was starting to rain. Walking both ways I passed the same sad, anxious bum's dog waiting next to a filthy bedroll on the spattered sidewalk. By the time I got back to my car it was pouring and my shoes were soaked. Basically, if I never go downtown again, it'll be too soon.

(You really want to get people to flock there? I have four words for the powers that be: Clearly Marked Dollar Parking.)

Seeking comfort (and lunch), I headed for the vicinity of the UA, where a number of small, dependable ethnic restaurants a) are almost always open, b) serve excellent food at a fair price and c) have adequate, fiercely guarded parking.

My first choice was El Cubanito, across from the big UA parking garage on East Sixth Street. Years ago, it sat where the garage is now, serving the same great stuff under the deliciously evocative name "Miami Tropical Cafeteria."

Once safely there, I ordered what I always have, Ropa Vieja ($7.95), "seasoned shredded beef Cuban style," which comes with black beans and rice ("Moros y Christianos"), plus a side of fried plantains ($3.25) and a Jupina ($1.40), a pineapple-flavored soda that, according to the menu, is Cuba's favorite. I'll take their word for that; it's definitely mine.

This was much more than I could eat, but as the cold rain poured down outside and I watched the coeds hopping and skipping across the fast-running creek that Sixth becomes on such occasions, I felt, if not actually wafted to the Caribbean, at least warm and cheered. What other cuisine evokes El Cid up front? What other Tucson restaurant hates somebody the way this one hates Castro? (The anti-Fidel displays change--currently there's a decorated skeleton in the corner.) Where else can you nibble fried plantains and watch college kids jumping the same puddles you jumped in 1978?

Still in need of a partial subject for a Chow review two days later, and still chilled--this was the Sunday it snowed--I took my shivering, cranky, surprise-averse self out to my all-time, hands-down favorite lunch spot, Miss Saigon (southeast corner of North Campbell Avenue and East Speedway; parking is around the back). Miss Saigon is a sparkling, hopping little place, and your soup comes fast, fast, fast, especially when you don't have to open the menu. "A small #21" is all you need to know.

Say that, and for $5.99 you get a generous, perfectly executed helping of one of the finest dishes known to man, a big bowlful of happiness laconically described on the menu as "Pho tai--Rice noodle soup with rare tender beef slices." Broth, noodles and still-pink beef slices there are, but this description leaves out nearly everything--the clarity and fragrance of the ginger- and anise-scented beef broth; the mound of startlingly crisp bean sprouts, red onion, purple basil, cilantro, jalapeño slices and lime that comes on the side; the fun of assembling a soup that's also a salad; the pleasure of slurping the noodles; the sheer goodness of the whole light, satisfying, nourishing meal.

The late R.W. Apple--a great journalist and a world-class eater--visited Vietnam in 2003 and wrote a memorable 3,000-word appreciation of pho for The New York Times food section. He helpfully identified the name as deriving from the French feu--as in pot-au-feu--and described the dish as "thrillingly restorative," "crystalline" and "complex." I would love nothing better than to research the relation of the pho of Hanoi to the pho of Saigon just as Apple did, by eating untold dozens of bowls at street stalls all over Vietnam--oddly, the Weekly won't spring for international travel--but I honestly can't imagine anything better than the pho Miss Saigon dishes up at Campbell and Speedway. The juxtaposition of clear and translucent; chewy, slippery and crunchy; hot and cold; cooked and fresh in one brimming bowl is, in my humble, grateful opinion, beyond improvement.

Plus, you can park.

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