The Distinctly American Quest for Good Chinese

Mei-Hon's appetizer combo is to die for. Now, if they'd just do something about the walls.

Is there anything more American than Chinese food? Now, before you get the impression that I've been snorting solvents again, let me explain.

Chinese food is everywhere. The word "takeout" immediately brings to mind little squarish boxes with skinny wire handles containing some festively named food product (Kung Pow!). Plus, Chinese food restaurants are everywhere. A tour of rural towns reveals that Chinese food can be obtained in the most isolated of places.

And don't even get me started on the fact that chain Chinese food restaurants, like Panda Express, are spreading faster than a bevy of frisky bunnies on a diet of oysters and Viagra.

The key, then, is to find that Chinese restaurant to call your own--your "regular" Chinese joint, one that somehow sets itself above all the others.

And as a newbie resident of Tucson, I am still looking for that special Chinese food restaurant.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, I went in search of that special place. With my partner in crime, Irene, in tow, we headed for Mei-Hon Tsing Tao Restaurant. And after a lunch that could be best described as inconsistent, I am still looking.

As we entered the East Irvington Road digs, we were quickly greeted by a polite young woman who essentially told us we could sit wherever we wanted. It was in the midst of the lunch hour, and the place was about three-quarters full.

As I sat down, one thing instantly caught the attention of Irene and myself: the wall. It and the sugar dispenser were dirty, spotted with various sauces and greases from meals past. It didn't look good; I'll leave it at that.

After a polite young man wearing a tuxedo, sans jacket, gave us our plates, I decided to sneak up and check out the lunch buffet ($5.65). It looked tasty, filled with typical Chinese buffet fare--soups, egg rolls, chicken dishes, etc. But Irene and I, feeling lazy, decided to stay in our seats and order from the menu.

Without thinking, Irene and I decided to get the combination appetizer ($6.95), along with a large egg flower soup ($4.50) for starters. I say "without thinking," because Irene is a vegetarian, and of the seven appetizers--crab puffs, egg rolls, fried wontons (the kind without filling), fried shrimp, spareribs, foil-wrapped chicken and sliced barbecue pork--six of them (the wontons being the exception) once roamed the planet in one way or another.

The soup soon delivered piping hot. It was OK--filled with egg, mushrooms, cabbage and water chestnuts--although, in Irene's words, it was "missing something."

Later, the appetizer platter arrived. Unfortunately for Irene, who couldn't eat hardly any of it, it was the highlight of the meal. Everything, save the ribs (which were a bit dry, but flavorful), sparkled. The crab puffs were creamy and delicious; the foil-wrapped chicken was tasty and not too greasy.

As we ate and chatted, my main course, garlic chicken ($6.25) arrived. I put it aside and continued chatting with Irene, waiting for her broccoli with black mushrooms and bean curd ($5.50) to be delivered.

Ten minutes later, the chatting stopped when we realized her entrée was still AWOL. We informed the waiter of this; he apologized and returned with the dish a few minutes later.

My garlic chicken was palatable, albeit a bit bland. The water chestnuts and celery overwhelmed the chicken in terms of both flavor and quantity. The garlic sauce was mild--again, missing something.

Irene felt the same way about her broccoli. The sweetish sauce was decent, but mild. The broccoli looked fresh, but she had to ask for a knife to cut through the lengthy stalks. While the bean curd--moderately large squares of tofu--was nicely prepared, the mushrooms were few and far between.

As Irene and I left Mei-Hon, we had few major complaints, outside of the sauce-spotted wall. But we had few major compliments, outside of the appetizer combo.

Thus, I am still searching for that special Chinese food restaurant in Tucson to call my own. But thankfully, being an American, I know there are other Chinese restaurants to check out just around the corner.