1800 E. Fort Lowell Road
READERS' PICK: If a restaurant's merit can be gauged by the number of returning customers, both locations of the Mandarin Grill can be said to be excellent. Sit in a booth at either place, and you'll soon overhear the kind of friendly repartee between customers, waitstaff and owners that can only evolve from repeat visits. Mandarin Grill boasts a voluminous menu that the committed will feel almost honor bound to work their way through. All of the standards are represented here -- from mu shu pork to kung pao chicken -- as are a number of less familiar dishes. We particularly enjoyed the feisty Mongolian chicken, with bits of meat sautéed in a tangy, golden sauce with long slivers of green onion spooned over a bed of crispy noodles. What makes Mandarin Grill stand out among its peers is the consistent use of fresh ingredients. The vegetables in every dish retain that delightful tender-crisp quality. A discreet inquiry revealed that no preservatives (such as MSG) are ever used at Mandarin Grill. Lunch specials draw in the crowds, with a five-spot easily covering the cost of a meal that includes entrée, soup, fried rice and fried wonton.
This relative newcomer at the corner of Fort Lowell Road and Campbell Avenue has moved quickly to first place for quick, efficient Chinese food. The secret is a large Mongolian grill, where diners choose from a range of fresh ingredients and flavorful sauces flash cooked by a chef on a flat, circular wok. Within minutes, your personal selection of noodles, rice, vegetables and meats is returned to your table steaming and delicious. There are additional buffet items, including egg rolls, entrées, fruit, salads and desserts. There's also a full menu of nearly 100 traditional Cantonese and Szechwan appetizers, soups and entrees. But the fresh-cooked, all-you-can-eat buffet is the main draw. Business is so good that the Rose Garden is in the midst of a third expansion, which will allow them to cater banquets of up to 400. Dim Sum specialties for Saturday and Sunday are rumored to be coming soon. A real bargain, and healthy too!
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Golden Dragon, 6433 N. Oracle Road; 6166 E. Speedway Blvd.; 4704 E. Sunrise Drive
MORE MANIA: A friend of ours, a lifelong resident of Shanghai, insists that China Phoenix, 7090 N. Oracle Road, is the closest thing to a real gourmet Chinese restaurant in Tucson. We second the opinion. We've feasted many times on delicacies like fiery-hot bean curd, black mushrooms, scallion-poached sea bass, and honey walnut shrimp, and we have yet to be anything but thrilled. The owners hail from the southern province of Canton, but they serve dishes from all over the country, from the mild vegetable dishes of the Beijing region to the fiery, peppery beef entrees of the Xinjiang desert. Whatever their geographic origins, the menu here is reasonably priced, with most plates coming in under $10, and each of them splendid.