Little Gems

Readers who know what they're talking about recommend these two tiny eateries

Here at Weekly World Central, we often get comments from readers exclaiming that (insert name of restaurant) serves the best (insert food type or item) in Tucson, and we must check it out!

Today, we're heading to the eastside to check out two of these reader-recommended spots. The verdict: While I won't go so far as to declare either of these tiny spots to be the best, there's much to like about both of them.

Our first stop is Wok Express, just east of Kolb Road on 22nd Street, in a location surrounded by auto-repair joints. Inside, you'll find a half-dozen tables, a small TV tuned to cable TV (during our Saturday-night visit, the entertainment was one of the Rocky films), lots of signs touting the healthy nature of the cooking, appealing smells coming from the kitchen and a fairly limited menu that starts off on professionally made signs behind the order counter and overflows onto hand-written signs.

The restaurant's big three offerings are fried rice, teriyaki and chow mein. Also offered are a handful of appetizers like egg rolls, potstickers and chicken wings, and entrées including orange chicken, and various hot-and-spicy and sweet-and-sour dishes. An inordinate number of signs seem to be pushing kimchi, and the takeout menu mysteriously declares: "Enjoy our foods with Korean kimchi for better taste."

We decided to save the kimchi for next time, and instead ordered the shrimp-and-chicken fried rice ($6.95), the beef chow mein ($6.45) and the potstickers ($3.95).

Wok Express is in the midst of an existential dilemma: While the place is called Wok Express, implying quick service, one sign declares the food there is prepared "fresh on order," which implies not-so-quick service. In our case, "fresh" won over "express," seeing as it took a full 25 minutes for our food to arrive. (This may have had to do with the fact that two rather large parties and one take-out customer just beat us to the ordering punch.)

The food, delivered in foam containers with plastic eating utensils, looked and smelled amazing. The potstickers were pretty average; the frying left the skin fairly gummy, which lead to an annoying mouth feel that the tastiness of the meaty concoction inside couldn't overcome. The fried rice was also so-so. While the inclusion of lots of fresh, perfectly cooked vegetables—cabbage, onion, corn, carrot, broccoli, celery, etc.—was splendid, three problems moved the dish out of positive territory and into average land: There were too many sesame seeds; some of the dark-meat chunks of chicken were gristly; and the dish seemed to be lacking egg. If egg was present, it was nicely masked. There were a lot of nice flavors in the fried rice, but it was missing something.

That brings us to the chow mein, which was well above average. In fact, it was excellent. The dish included brown noodles, well-prepared beef, more of those delicious vegetables and a lot of flavor. There was more than a hint of garlic, and perhaps best of all, this flavor infusion was accomplished without the resulting dish being too oily. This chow mein was some of the best I've ever had.

The next stop on our eastside jaunt takes us north and a bit west, to Southwest Desert Dogs, on Pima Street just west of Craycroft Road.

If you don't like hot dogs, don't come here, because that's all that is on the menu. You get to choose among nine types o' dogs (including Coney Island, New York-style and Texas BBQ varieties), all $3, except for the basic all-beef dog ($2), and the maxed-out Polish Sonoran ($4), a polish wiener topped with bacon, beans, onion, salsa, jalapeño, mustard and mayo. The usual condiments are free, while extras like bacon, beans, sauerkraut and peppers will set you back 50 cents, if they're not already included in the dog of your choice.

All of the hot dogs are assembled outdoors, with the man and woman running the joint grabbing toppings out of various small containers. A small building behind the hot-dog-prep area offers three tables (and a tiny TV tuned to, God help us all, Rachael Ray's talk show while I was there), and a covered patio offers even more seating.

This is basically an outdoor operation, and although everything's covered, I wondered: What happens when it rains? The answer: If there's a raging monsoon, they'll temporarily close while the storm blows through—but otherwise, they stay open ... and they even get busier.

Why busier? "I think people feel sorry for us," the man said.

I got four dogs to take home: The aforementioned Polish Sonoran, as well as the Chicago style, the Sonoran style and the bratwurst.

Garrett is a big fan of bratwurst and sauerkraut, and he was delighted by Southwest Desert Dogs' version. The sausage was well-balanced and flavorful, and the spicy mustard and kraut were nice complements. On Sunday a few days later, he was still thinking about that brat and decided he wanted one—and was crestfallen when I told him that Southwest Desert Dogs is closed on Sundays.

The two Sonoran-style dogs were merely decent. Chalk this one up to personal preferences: I am firmly in the Sonoran hot-dog camp that believes the bacon should be wrapped around the wiener, whereas Southwest Desert Dogs tops the sausage with pieces of bacon. I did find the Polish Sonoran version to be intriguing, although the larger weenie made the dog harder to eat.

Speaking of hard to eat ... that delicious Chicago-style dog was eaten in my house over the sink, and it's a good thing, because it was so packed with goodies—tomato, pickle, relish, onion, peppers, mustard and celery salt—that I made an unholy mess. In other words, it was a proper Chicago dog, one of the best I've eaten in a while.

But is it the best in town? Your call, folks.