Island Asian

When you cross a Chinese heritage with Puerto Rican flavors, you get Asian Sofrito

Mark Whittaker

Until Wild Garlic Grill moved into that one-time A&W Root Beer joint on First Avenue north of Grant Road, a lot of different restaurateurs had tried their luck, only to go bust.

But now that Wild Garlic Grill has decamped for the Foothills, a young upstart wants to make the space work.

Jose Chung is of Chinese descent but he grew up in Puerto Rico and Panama. He grew up cooking in a restaurant that mashed up Asian and Caribbean aspects. Can you imagine what that kind of fusion is like?

If you want to find out, head over to Chung's joint, Asian Sofrito, and see if the taste lives up your wild imaginings.

That's what I did. A few times. It's highly recommended for those who dig fried rice, fried chicken and plantains married to sauces that boast bright notes, or brothy soups accentuated with simple features that highlight what Chung calls "street food from home."

"Although in Puerto Rico, we serve our food in Styrofoam, usually," says Chung. "Here in Tucson, that doesn't go over so well. We're still working out how to get authentic food from Panama, where I was born, to taste like it does back there. It is a challenge that we are still working on."

Asian Sofrito is only a few months old and Chung is barely in his late 20s. He studied science and economics at the UA after graduating from Sahuarita High School with a plan to practice dentistry. But his distaste for student loans and a growing reluctance to spend his days cleaning teeth persuaded him to team up with his father to open this Asian-Caribbean hybrid.

Sofrito is basically a stew of tomatoes, garlic and peppers that's used in a slew of Portuguese-style dishes as a main or base. Chung took that tradition ideal and is building on it. This is supposed to be fusion street grub, even though it has been regulated to clean plates.

"We are not trying to be fancy, we want that Puerto Rican street food feel," says Chung, who says he leans hard on adobo and soy sauces. "I think that Tucson is ready to try that fusion of flavors. If you want just Asian food we can accommodate, but if you want the flavors of the island, we can do that too. That I think is the most exciting thing of what we do here."

Here is a tip: When eating the mofongo (plantains mixed with savory herbs and spices) Jose advises you to dip into the earthy, grassy, chicken-based gravy, enhancing each bite. At first I had no clue, but this young chef knows what he is talking about. For that alone, let's hope Asian Sofrito can make it work in that tricky location.

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