Postcards From Dandong

China Pasta House is just what Tucson's Asian-food scene needs: The food is inexpensive, tasty and different

Tucson has never had its fair share of good Chinese restaurants. Consider that P.F. Chang's has finished first or second in the Best Chinese category of our Best of Tucson® readers' poll every year within the last decade or so.

Not that there's anything wrong with P.F. Chang's. Of course, there's nothing really right with P.F. Chang's, either.

Thankfully, in recent years, entrepreneurs have started opening local Chinese-food restaurants that offer something different than, say, the ubiquitous Americanized sesame chicken. One notable example is Impress Hot Pot, which has been delighting locals—including one of our reviewers, Jacqueline Kuder—with hot-pot food and other tasty treats for about a year now.

Now comes another Chinese restaurant offering something different: China Pasta House, which opened a while back in the university-adjacent Park Avenue space that once housed Nam-Son Restaurant. It offers up "traditional Chinese pasta," specifically from Dandong, a city in the northeastern part of China on the border with North Korea. While I can't say whether the food at China Pasta House is authentic, seeing as I have never been to Dandong, I can say that the cuisine is indeed pretty tasty.

If you're looking for décor, go elsewhere: The small dining room, while clean and not uncomfortable, is meant to offer people a no-frills place to eat, period. There's no music in the background, just cooking sounds from the kitchen and the hum of the Pepsi machine and several coolers. A few scattered buns and dumplings are on display in various heating cases, and on one recent visit, there was a solitary tea-marinated egg sitting in what I believe was a cooler. As for wall art, there are a few mirrors, a small cloth wall-hanging, a sign with parking-space rental rates (the small restaurant is adjacent to a decent-sized lot) and various workplace labor-law posters.

On our first visit, for a Saturday lunch, Garrett and I had the restaurant to ourselves. A young woman was working the front of the house, taking our orders, delivering food, and scrubbing—hunched over, with two hands—the tabletops when she wasn't helping us.

China Pasta House's offerings include various "gruel" dishes, dumplings, steamed buns, wonton soups, noodle dishes and a few other specialties. We decided to try the cabbage and pork dumplings ($12 for 30 pieces; we got a half-order for $6), the triangle brown-sugar buns ($1.50), and—I am not making this name up—the "hot and sour noodles with three shredded stuff" ($6.75).

All of the food had two things in common: It was tasty, and it was mushy.

The cabbage and pork dumplings—some of us would call them potstickers—had a delicious flavor (and were a nice deal at 15 of them for $6), but the pasta surrounding the filling had no firmness whatsoever. It was as if they were cooked for too long—or maybe, I thought, that's just how they do things in Dandong.

The spaghetti-like noodles in the "hot and sour noodles with three shredded stuff" suffered the same, mushy fate—although the rest of the "stuff" was downright delicious. The noodles were in a peppery orange broth with cilantro, pork, mushrooms and spices. (We asked the young woman what the "three shredded stuff" were before we ordered; she replied: pork and mushrooms. I am still not sure what the third "stuff" is.) I would order this again in a heartbeat, even though the noodles themselves were an overly soft mess.

The brown-sugar buns were OK. Dough was filled with piping-hot sugar syrup (but it didn't seem like what I know as brown sugar). They were rather simple, but good enough—until the sugar cooled and became rock-hard.

We decided to get one of the specials, the Chinese sauerkraut pork rice ($7.99), to go—and the rice, too, suffered from mushiness. (We tried it immediately after the seven-minute trip from the restaurant to my home, so the travel time didn't contribute much, if at all, to the softness.) This was our least-favorite of the dishes we tried at China Pasta House; the sauerkraut tasted just like the German-ish stuff you'd get in a jar at the grocery store, and it overwhelmed the surprisingly mild flavor of the pork.

I returned to China Pasta House to get some to-go food for a weeknight dinner: The "cabbage and pork wonton" ($4.75 for "eight pieces"); the pork steamed buns ($5.25 for eight pieces); the shredded seafood dumplings ($7.50 for 15 pieces); the tomato-and-egg noodles ($6.49) for me; and the braised-beef noodles ($7.24) for Garrett. The food was ready in 20 to 25 minutes, as promised; when I picked up the food, two groups of Asian UA students were enjoying their meals.

I learned something when I got home: The cuisine of Dandong—at least as represented by China Pasta House—is not always mushy. All of the pasta we ordered was cooked just right.

The pork steamed buns were packed with flavorful, delicious meat; they were Garrett's favorite dish from China Pasta House. The seafood dumplings were also wonderful; shrimp dominated the flavor.

The "cabbage and pork wonton," eight pieces—as described on the menu—that we received was actually a soup containing the aforementioned wontons. The broth, featuring out-of-place-looking greens, was rather bland. It was the one dish that eventually went unfinished.

Both noodle dishes were lovely—especially when spiced up with a squirt or two of sriracha. (Yeah, I know sriracha is Thai, not Chinese. Whatever.) The only flaw was that the beef in Garrett's dish was a bit tough.

Despite the mushiness-laden first visit, the second visit made me a fan of the food at China Pasta House. It's tasty; it's different; and it's inexpensive.

The Tucson Chinese-food scene is slowly getting better. Hallelujah!

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