The Natives Approve

Dragon Village's impressive Chinese food may be worth the trip to Oro Valley

Large numbers of Chinese workers arrived in Tucson around 1880 as railroad laborers. Rather than moving east with the new railroad line as it stretched toward New Mexico, many of them elected to stay in Tucson in service, agricultural or mining jobs. Despite this long Chinese presence, local Chinese food has never seemed to reach the standard it has in, say, the San Francisco Bay Area.

More than 10 years ago, I asked a very discerning friend and food critic about her favorite Chinese restaurants in Tucson. She was rather grudging with her praise, but she did name a few establishments. It struck me at the time that they all had the same word in their names, but now I can't remember whether that word was "golden" or "dragon." I'll wager it was "dragon," because I've just had a good meal at Dragon Village in Oro Valley--good enough that it satisfied two Chinese-born members of my dinner party.

Dragon Village is, frankly, out of the way if you don't live on the city's far northwest side. It's in the Safeway shopping center on Tangerine Road, at the intersection where Oro Valley's First Avenue (not the "real" First Avenue in Tucson) becomes Rancho Vistoso Boulevard. Beware: The map on the restaurant's Web site and takeout menu is not drawn to scale, and the place isn't nearly as close to the corner of Tangerine and Oracle as it appears.

My group of six arrived at 6 p.m. on a Monday--not usually a restaurant's peak night--but the storefront establishment was already packed with early diners, mostly Rancho Vistoso retirees. As they finished, they were immediately replaced by younger families from the area. The noise level gradually increased, bolstered by a happy little birthday group in the corner. Clearly, Dragon Village is a neighborhood favorite.

And why wouldn't it be? The prices are reasonable; the portions are generous; and the food is tasty, although, to be honest, the flavors still aren't as intense and complex as you can so easily find on the West Coast.

We ordered one soup and seven other dishes for the table to share, and had just enough left over to take home to a sick shut-in.

First came the Westlake shrimp and beef soup ($6.95), named after a popular Chinese tourist town. The soup had less shrimp than beef--or at least it did by the time the bowl reached my end of the table--but the good news is that the thin beef strips, so difficult to manage in a soup like this, were firm but not at all rubbery. Succulent mushrooms lurked beneath the surface, on which floated lots of minced cilantro and little shreds of egg, in the manner of egg flower soup.

Most of the other items, served with steamed white rice ("brown" rice is also available, although I don't know whether that means steamed or fried brown), were generously garnished with vegetables, mainly broccoli florets. The broccoli had slid out of the wok just right--bright green and crisp, but cooked through.

In general, the seasonings of each dish were carefully balanced; everything was tasty in its own way, but no single spice ever dominated the flavor.

The crispy teriyaki eggplant ($6.95)--more Japanese than Chinese, really--was clad in a light, puffy, crunchy flour batter, accompanied by a teriyaki sauce that was rather sweet, as promised. It was a hit at the table, even among those people who avoid vegetables.

From the "chef's special" section of the menu, we tried the grammatically dubious "steam fish fillet" ($8.95). The odd-shaped little blobs of white fish meat had a good, firm texture, and benefited from the "chef's special sauce," which was generous with ginger and tamari. The walnut shrimp ($10.95) was outstanding and tasted rather unusual; a sweet white sauce with sesame seeds clung to the 16 little coils of shrimp (by the restaurant's standards, this was a modest serving), while candied walnuts beckoned from the side.

The Szechuan chicken ($6.95) was good but not really spicy (as the menu promised it would be). The sizzling beef with mixed vegetables ($7.95) was a satisfying version of a fairly simple preparation. The pork with eggplant ($7.95) was very good indeed, although it didn't take the form of a sort of eggplant pocket stuffed with pork that one of our Chinese friends anticipated; the shredded pork was merely jumbled with eggplant, the ubiquitous and welcome broccoli, carrots and onions in a pungent but not overwhelming garlic sauce.

There's not much to say about the fortune cookies, except that the fortunes are, thankfully, not written in silly pidgin English.

Dragon Village offers what looks like two good "family dinner" deals for $8.95 or $9.95 per person; in each case, you choose one item per person from a list of eight possibilities, and receive beforehand soup, an egg roll and either a crab puff or fried shrimp (depending on the price), with pork fried rice on the side.

Something else we didn't try is the house signature dish, sesame chicken ($7.95), but it's supposed to be pretty good--that's what got Dragon Village named one of the nation's Top 100 Chinese restaurants last year by a trade magazine. I'll take the magazine's word for it, especially since the Chinese mother of one of my friends, visiting here for a few weeks, declared that the place serves the best Chinese food she's had in Tucson. Of course, that's like one of us going to Canada and announcing that some eatery there serves the best Mexican food we've had in Saskatchewan. But still, it's an accomplishment.

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