Chinese on the Santa Cruz

Dragon('s) View is back in top form in the hands of owner Harry Gee

Sometime in the mid-1990s, Mark Salzman came to town, and we needed to fill him with Chinese food.

Salzman is best known for Iron and Silk, a memoir-turned-movie (in which he starred) about the time he spent in China teaching English and studying martial arts. I'd fallen in with a group charged with his care during his local appearance, and we thought a Chinese meal would remind him of the good old days.

But this is Tucson, where Chinese restaurants abound, but quantity has somehow edged out quality. Where could we take Salzman for a Chinese meal that went significantly beyond adequate? Somebody made reservations at a nice place tucked away on a side street a bit west of Interstate 10, and the meal greatly pleased our guest—and the rest of us.

A few years later, the owners sold the business, and the restaurant went into a steep decline; even the booth upholstery started to look shabby. The last meal I had there, early in this decade, was a severe disappointment.

A couple of years ago, one of the original owners, Harry Gee, regained control of the restaurant. Recently, two of my neighbors (one of whom is an American of Chinese descent) urged us to give the place another try. We did (with those neighbors joining us)—and I'm pleased to report that the establishment is back in top form.

The name of the restaurant? Well, that's a matter of some dispute. The sign outside says Dragon's View, as does the pink takeout menu. Other menus, though, and the cash-register receipts call the place Dragon View. The online Dex listings employ the second option. The question: Is it the view from the perspective of a dragon, or is it a view of a dragon?

The actual view through the front windows is of Bonita Avenue, the street that winds along the west side of the Santa Cruz between St. Mary's Road and Congress Street, and windows on one side overlook the pleasant Santa Cruz River Linear Park. It's an inauspicious location for a restaurant; for many years, there was hardly anything else along Bonita, and today, the avenue is populated mainly by little office plazas that clear out at 5 p.m. If you don't work there, live in one of the adjacent neighborhoods or smell the restaurant from the park, you'd never know it exists.

That means that Dragon View is not usually crowded. Its large dining rooms are neatly appointed in a style that's not particularly Chinese, and the ambient music features not sanxian and erhu, but Sonny and Cher. The Chinese elements are all concentrated in the cuisine.

A decade ago, you had to call a day in advance to get the Peking duck, but that no longer seems to be necessary. (We called ahead anyway.) Duck became the centerpiece of our meal: a big platter piled with shredded duck meat and crispy skin ($30 whole, $15.95 half), ringed by folded-over chun bing buns, and adorned with scallions and a sweet plum sauce. The idea is to create little sandwiches from these elements. In China, I think, the skin is prized more highly than the meat, but here, you get plenty of the latter. It's tender and brown, not at all oily or fatty—just about an ideal preparation. The flavors of duck, onion and sauce come through boldly from within the intentionally bland buns.

Another highlight was the walnut shrimp ($14.95) in a sauce that manages to be delicate as well as thick, creamy and just a little sweet. If there's a way to turn shrimp into comfort food, this is it.

The spicy and crispy ma po tofu ($8.95) wasn't as spicy or crispy as I'd anticipated, but the big chunks did have a nice contrast of textures, soft on the inside and firm on the outside. (My neighbors assured me that the tofu is usually crispier than this.) A bit of minced pork added flavor to the tofu, which by its nature has little to offer on its own.

One of the great things about a family-run Chinese restaurant is that the staffer at your table—here, it could be Harry Gee himself saying hello—will be happy to go back to the kitchen and find out which of the menu's produce selections are the best that day. On Gee's recommendation, we skipped the green beans we'd been contemplating and opted for gai lan (Chinese broccoli, $9.25) and yu choy (hefty greens, also $9.25). Both were stir-fried to a perfect, bright-green compromise of tenderness and crunch, although, frankly, I had trouble telling which vegetable was which. We ordered one with garlic sauce, the other with oyster sauce (supposedly spicier, but not to my dialed-up standards). Neither dish was overwhelmed with sauce; the liquid mainly enhanced the greens' natural fresh flavor.

Add white rice and good, hot (but not Chinese-style scalding) jasmine tea, and you have more food than four people really should eat in a single sitting. Nevertheless, perhaps because our neighbors were regulars, the waitress offered us complimentary little bowls of mango-tapioca soup for dessert. It was a cold and sweet milk-based liquid with tapioca lurking at the bottom, a perfect ending to a substantial but not over-oily meal. Apparently, the restaurant sometimes prepares a coconut version of this.

There's plenty more to explore on the generous but not overwhelming menu: baked Chilean sea bass, lobster, several duck preparations and the usual array of prawn, scallop, beef, pork, chicken, vegetable and tofu stir-fries. Ask to see the Asian menu, which largely overlaps with the larger American version but includes some extras, including hot pots, mussels, clams and calamari. It's all free of added MSG.

My neighbors tell me that—remarkably—the lunch buffet is also very good; even decent Chinese restaurants often fail at the buffet.

I still haven't figured out if the restaurant's name is supposed to suggest the dragon's point of view, but from my vantage point, Dragon('s) View is again serving some of the best Chinese food in Tucson.

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