By Rebecca Cook
IF IT WASN'T for the help of some culinary-wise friends, this article would not have been possible.
After a week of dragging around the house with the flu, I was feeling less than enthusiastic about the prospect of dining out. Hard to believe, I know, but there are times when having to go out for dinner is a real drag.
I decided to keep it simple this week and, in keeping with my ongoing love affair for all food enterprises originating in trailers, check out a new barbecue joint on East Grant Road I'd been hearing about.
However, the vagaries of the restaurant business threatened to have this enterprise closed before an article could run and, so, the deadline race was on to find a suitable substitute for review.
Many thanks to my friend Ian, who responded to my dilemma with the question, "Have you tried Old Peking recently?"
In my UA days I had frequented Old Peking quite a lot. My recollections primarily focused on a tasty and spicy-hot "princess chicken" and the Chinese alternative to burros, moo-shu pork with plum sauce. At one time, Old Peking was my favorite place in town for Chinese food.
But the widening of Speedway forced many changes, one of which was that Old Peking underwent upgrading and remodeling.
Although I haven't conducted any scientific studies on the subject, it's been my experience that when a good place to eat goes upscale, the quality of the food often suffers. Had Old Peking experienced such a decline? After all, for more than 10 years, I hadn't heard a word about the place. How good could it possibly be?
The answer is pretty darn good. Although the food didn't impress me the way it did when I was a starving college student (a time when anything that relieved the tedium of yet another Hamburger Helper supper was ravenously appreciated), Old Peking consistently serves some outstanding examples of Mandarin and Szechwan cooking.
As with many Chinese restaurants in town, lunch is the most cost-effective meal of the day at Old Peking. For $4.25 ($5.25 for seafood dishes) one can choose from a short list of Chinese dishes, which come with a choice of egg roll, Chinese chicken salad, hot and sour soup or egg flower soup and either white or fried rice.
Egg rolls at Old Peking can be ordered in either a meat-filled or vegetarian version and come with a light and fruity sweet-and-sour sauce. Egg roll ingredients--shredded cabbage, carrot and bean sprouts--are fresh, but the wrapper at lunch had become a little tough, no doubt the result of being prepared too far in advance in anticipation of the daily lunch rush. This was not a problem at dinner, when the egg roll was as crisp and tender as it should be.
Definitely try the soups at Old Peking, with my particular favorites being the sweet-and-sour and won ton, both of which are delicately flavored yet satisfying. In particular, the won ton soup, with its doughy pockets filled with a barely spicy mixture of ground meat, was an especial delight.
Entrees at Old Peking give the diner extensive options in all major meat categories (chicken, beef and pork), as well as a few duck and vegetable dishes. In my two visits I tried diligently to sample as broad a spectrum as possible, but return visits will be necessary to scratch the surface of all that Old Peking offers.
The sesame chicken was a definite standout--tender, breaded chunks of chicken quick-fried and served in a dark semi-sweet soy-based sauce and topped with sesame seeds. The semi-crunchy broccoli, which was served on the side, was an ideal companion.
Still sensational at Old Peking was the moo-shu, a medley of vegetables cooked to crisp-tender perfection and then scooped into mandarin pancakes with the requisite plum sauce added. Chicken, pork or a meatless moo-shu version with bean curd are available.
The dish I always order at Chinese restaurants, and the one that has thus become my yardstick for perfection, is twice-cooked pork. I've had renditions of this dish that I would gladly have died for, and I've also tried variations that left me completely unmoved.
On a scale of one to 10, Old Peking's twice-cooked pork ranks somewhere in the middle, neither overwhelmingly wonderful nor offensive in any way.
It doesn't seem as though shredded pork and vegetables should pose any big problems in preparation; but as with most Chinese dishes, the balance of flavors and textures is an extremely delicate undertaking. The meat here was a bit tough and the vegetables just slightly overcooked.
Also, though twice-cooked pork is supposed to be one of Old Peking's hot and spicy dishes, I found it only slightly warming on the palate, a mild disappointment for someone who's exceedingly fond of spicy food.
Ginger duck with pineapple was a huge success, tender pieces of canard swimming in a rich ginger-root infused sauce. Also tasty was a tomato beef, slices of steak and shredded vegetables served in a dark, semi-sweet tomato-base sauce.
The service at Old Peking is efficient and friendly and the diner is never hurried through a meal. Take out is available and, from the looks of things, many of Old Peking's customers go this route.
I guess I have to say that my theory about renovation and culinary decline might need some refining: Old Peking remains one of Tucson's finer Chinese restaurants.
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