Driving through Oro Valley, you can't help but notice the glut of chain restaurants that line Oracle Road. By the time you get to Rancho Vistoso Boulevard, you almost feel like you'll never find a locally owned restaurant of any sort.
But then you come across Grain River Asian Bistro. This restaurant offers a wide array of choices, no matter what Asian food you're craving. We enjoyed everything that we ordered—yet little flaws dampened our enthusiasm just a bit.
Grain River's menu reads like a map of Asia and the Pacific Rim. You'll find Thai, Korean, Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese and Formosan (the chef and crew are from Taiwan) plates. The menu states that dishes can be prepared with beef, chicken, shrimp or a mix-and-match.
We found the layout of the menu to be a bit confusing. Decipher this: "Thai style cashew dish Stir fried cashews, bell peppers, onions, carrots and water chestnuts. Your choice: Chicken or beef 11, Shrimp 12, Mix & Match 13 Seafood 14." Or: "Japanese style Tokyo dish Batter-fried with chef's special teriyaki sauce. Your choice Chicken 14 Shrimp 15." Three college graduates had a tough time sorting it all out. Had the menu been organized better, ordering would have been easier—but that is a minor flaw.
On the plus side, the dishes are nicely presented, and the portions are big enough to share. Service was spot-on during both visits; you get the feeling everyone there is family.
The room is decorated simply, with a few pictures and a large mirror. Pale-green and rusty-red walls add a modern flair. Cloth panels decorated with Chinese writing divide the dining area from the kitchen. The tables are packed together, making it cozy, but loud. The crowd is mainly well-heeled retired folks from nearby Rancho Vistoso. I didn't notice the background music on our first visit, but during our follow-up dinner, the same Asian chanting was played over and over.
Wine, beer, sake and cocktails are available, although there is no bartender. We sampled the Grain River saketini ($7), a mix of vodka, sake, tropical fruit juices and raspberry juice. (The menu said it was cranberry juice, but the server said customers didn't like the taste, so they switched to raspberry.) I think we might have preferred the cranberry, because the drink was a tad on the sweet side.
We tried to sample the food of several regions of Asia, so we had the shrimp pad Thai ($12), the Korean bulgogi with beef ($15), the orange-peel chicken ($10) and the Grain River fish ($15). For appetizers we tried the harumaki, or Japanese egg rolls ($3), and the Formosa salad ($8).
Because a choice of soup—miso, egg-drop or hot-and-sour—comes with each entrée, we had the chance to try all three. The miso was OK. The egg drop was rich with strands of egg, and had a slick mouth feel that at first seemed odd, but then mellowed out. The savory broth of the hot-and-sour soup was tangy and included lots of vegetables and strips of tofu swimming around. It was by far the best of the three, and one of the better hot-and-sour soups we've had in Tucson.
The harumaki were served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. These tiny starters were super-crispy, but nothing special. The Formosa salad, though, fared better. The mixed greens, Asian noodles, shredded chicken, green onions and cilantro (the menu said there were peanuts, but we couldn't find any) had been tossed with a light dressing featuring a balance of salty and sweet. And the salad textures ranged from crispy to smooth. Yin and yang is a theme of sorts at Grain River, and the salad embodied that philosophy.
The bulgogi was like no other I've ever had. It came in a thick, dark sauce that dominated the dish and masked the smoky flavor that makes bulgogi so good. Don't get me wrong; the dish was tasty—just not what I was expecting.
The shrimp pad Thai was a nice version of one of my favorite Asian dishes, although for the price, there could've been more shrimp.
The orange-peel chicken, which can often be more batter than chicken, was pleasing. Big chunks of white meat had been fried in a light, almost-airy batter. You could actually see pieces of orange in the sauce. Again, it was one of the better versions we've had in town.
The Grain River fish consisted of a good-size flounder filet, steamed and served with a light-brown sauce. Julienned strips of fresh ginger and scallions were artfully placed across the top. The ginger added a light essence to the tender fish. There wasn't much heft to the sauce—the steam apparently thinned it out—but you could taste soy and an almost maple-like hint of sweetness.
Were I to visit again, I might order one of the bento specials, which are available both at lunch ($7 to $12) and dinner ($15 to $16). In addition to a wide choice of entrées, you get a little bit of everything: a choice of soup, an egg roll, a dumpling, rice and salad. I'd also ask for soy sauce or sriracha; neither were on our table.
Grain River has good food. I don't know if I'd drive all the way to Oro Valley again to eat there, but folks in the neighborhood should take advantage of this pleasant little taste of Asia.