Sporting Chinese

Great Wall China is back, and the fine food and service show it's better than ever

Kwang C. An is known around Tucson for three things: his highly regarded teppan/sushi restaurant, Sakura; his love of sports; and his annoying TV commercials with former Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez.

Armed with this information, one could make some predictions about Great Wall China, which An opened decades ago, sold and then reacquired about a year ago: You could assume the food would be good, like at Sakura; that sports posters and whatnot would be scattered around the restaurant; and that An would do an annoying Luis Gonzalez commercial for Great Wall, too.

If you'd have made these predictions, you'd be batting 1.000.

Since repurchasing Great Wall China (yes, the "of" is missing from the name, for some reason), An--whose mug adorns the restaurant's sign along Craycroft Road and the cover of the menus--has put a lot of work into the place, and Tucson's all the better for it. As a matter of fact, Great Wall China deserves to be part of the discussion regarding Tucson's best Chinese restaurants. It's that good.

The menu is packed with options you'd expect, including the requisite lunch specials ($6.95 to $9.95), and some things you might not expect, like the lobster with black bean sauce ($39.95) and some Korean-style dishes. The only thing the expansive menu lacks is a substantial selection of vegetarian items. That's not to say that non-meat-eaters will go hungry at Great Wall; four "vegetarian's delight" entrées do join a handful of other options, but the vegetarian menu is not as extensive as you'd find at other area Chinese joints.

However, you probably wouldn't find such fine service or a setting that's as clean and nice (including flat-screen TVs, a full bar and, yes, lots of sports posters) at those other restaurants, either.

Garrett and I started off our dinner visit with the potstickers ($5.95) and the war wonton soup ($9.95). The pleasant and knowledgeable server delivered the food to our table in no time, and we were soon enjoying the eight perfectly fried pork dumplings, presented in a somewhat spartan style on a bed of cabbage on a white plate, with a soy-vinegar sauce in the middle. The soup's flavor wasn't overpowering, but it featured numerous subtle nuances and a whole lot of ingredients: pork, shrimp (with tails still on), chicken, several different types of mushrooms, zucchini, bamboo shoots, broccoli, snow peas, bok choy, carrots, water chestnuts, etc. It was packed, and all of the ingredients retained just a bit of crispness.

Just as we were finishing the soup, our entrées arrived: my chicken and vegetables with hot sauce ($14.95), and Garrett's house pan-fried noodles ($13.95). My dish was only OK. On the plus side, the vegetables--many of the same ones found in the war wonton soup--were again fresh and wonderfully prepared. On the minus side, some of the breaded chicken pieces were a little tough, and the brown sauce that covered everything had a healthy kick, but not very much flavor. Subtle is a good thing, but in this case, there was too much of a good thing.

While I ate my so-so dish, Garrett was thrilled with his pan-fried noodles. To quote him: "I've been looking for these for a long time." The thin egg noodles had a perfect consistency--mostly cooked through, with just a hint of crunchiness here and there--and the co-starring beef, chicken, shrimp and veggies were fantastic. Like my dish, Garrett's dish featured a brown sauce; it tasted similar to the sauce on my dish, but it had a lot more of a tasty, earthy flavor. One other thing about his dish: It was huge. This could have fed two people, maybe three; much of it came home in a to-go container, and became a tasty lunch the next day.

Neither of the dessert options--ice cream ($2) and a crispy rice/banana/ice cream dish ($7.95)--sounded appealing, so we paid the bill and left, both quite satisfied.

Irene Messina joined me a couple of days later for lunch. Whereas only a handful of other dining parties shared Great Wall with Garrett and me for dinner, the restaurant was a good three-quarters full during our lunch visit--with a good chunk of that business coming from the practically adjacent Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The crowd didn't affect the service, though; it was again fast and friendly.

We started with some tasty (if a little too dominated by cream cheese) crab puffs ($5.95). I then ordered the sesame chicken lunch special ($7.95), which came with soup (egg drop or hot and sour; I chose the latter); a pork egg roll; a chicken wing; and fried, white or brown rice (I chose the former). Irene ordered the shrimp with cashew nuts ($14.95). The soup--an average version of the Chinese-restaurant staple--and the meaty, satisfying egg roll were delivered within a couple of minutes, as was the so-so chicken wing. And not too long after that, the main courses arrived.

Both Irene and I liked our lunches. While the fried rice was surprisingly bland, my sesame chicken was fantastic. Whereas some restaurants' renditions of sesame chicken tend to be overly sweet, this one was spot-on. The chicken was surrounded by bright green broccoli that was just a tad undercooked--just the way I like it. Irene, meanwhile, was happy with her shrimp. She liked the fact that the sauce was tasty, but not overpowering. I stole a bite and agreed; the sauce picked up a lot of the flavor of the red and green bell peppers that resided next to the shrimp, cashews, onions and other vegetables.

It seems that Luis Gonzalez's "dad" has another winner on his hands--a winner that a city starved for good Chinese food should be happy to have back.

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