I love San Francisco's Chinatown, which has hundreds of little shops displaying fresh meat, fish, vegetables and other treats from the far corners of the globe. Although Tucson has no such area, we are fortunate to have Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket to help fill that void.
Friends and family have talked about all of the wonderful goodies up at Lee Lee since it opened late last year, but I hadn't yet made the trek up to the northwest side to check it out. I was excited to browse through all of the options from Japan, Korea, India, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Laos, the Philippines, Pakistan, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Holland, Brazil, Africa ... you name it, and they've probably got something from that part of the world.
The first thing I noticed about Lee Lee was the sheer size. Taking up the old Food 4 Less space at Orange Grove Road and La Cholla Boulevard, it's massive, bright and very clean. The aisles are broken up by region, except for the meat, seafood and produce sections. The produce is abundant, fresh and inexpensive (including fun things like bitter melon, jackfruit and yucca); the meat department is extensive, including delicacies like pig ears and tails, whole ducks, lamb and a plethora of intestinal delights. The seafood selection is the best I've seen yet in Tucson, including some live selections. An extra bonus: They'll clean your fish for you if you're a bit squeamish or inexperienced in that area.
After wandering the market, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over new finds, Ted and I decided to try out the Vietnamese restaurant that's connected to the supermarket, Thuan Kieu. It's a large, bright open space that also has a separate outside entrance (though most of the traffic was coming via the market). The menu is overwhelming, with more than 250 choices. The owner suggested we start out with one of the many spring-roll appetizers, but I had my heart set on the appetizer platter ($8.99, No. 1 on the menu) with shrimp, charbroiled meatballs, bean-curd skin, egg rolls and beef rolls. After it came out, I see why he'd suggested a smaller appetizer—it was enough to feed four people, easily. Everything was hot, fresh and delicious; the shrimp and beef were tender and not overcooked, and there was plenty of lettuce, mint, bean sprouts and dipping sauce to enjoy.
For entrées, I chose the vermicelli with charbroiled pork, pork egg roll and shredded pork ($6.99, No. 136 on the menu), and Ted chose the pho with rare steak strips, well-done flank steak, marble brisket, tendon, tripe and beef balls ($6.75, No. 1 on the list of pho choices). The portion sizes for both dishes were huge. My dish had good flavors, and the pork slices were tender and smoky. Ted's pho was excellent, with a rich, flavorful broth and generous amounts of the aforementioned ingredients, though they didn't leave much room in the bowl for the bean sprouts and jalapeños to be added in.
Lee Lee also contains Nan Tian BBQ, a tiny (but efficient) barbecue joint at the front of the supermarket. We picked up food to share with family on a recent weeknight, walking out with chicken feet, duck feet and wings (all $2 per pound), pig ear ($6.25 per pound), barbecued pork (a loin-type cut, $6.25 per pound) and a whole roasted duck ($16.25 each). After you pick your meats, they chop them up for you and load them up into foam to-go boxes.
I've had chicken feet before, and they're not on the list of foods that I regularly eat. The flavor is fine; it's a texture issue for me. Also, Nan Tian doesn't remove the nails. Call me a sissy, but nails gross me out. Despite this, I tried a few of the feet, and they had a nice flavor, sort of vinegary and acidic. They're still not on the top of my favorite foods list, though. The duck feet and wings were tender, and the small amount of meat and cartilage was falling off the bones. The strips of pig ears were mild and chewy—not necessarily something I'd have for an entrée, but they would make a nice finger-food appetizer, although the gelatinous texture makes them a little messy.
The pork and duck were the stars of the meal—the duck was not too oily, and all of the skin was crisp and crunchy, almost Peking-duck-style. A small container of brown gravy came with the duck, which was tasty but not needed. (Warning: The duck comes with the head; we had to hide it, because a few family members are squeamish about their food looking back at them.) The pork, with pink rings around the outside, was barbecued with a sweet, sticky sauce, and was moist and juicy while still being cooked through. The crunchy, salty, dark-smoked end pieces were my favorite, though. I'm thinking the whole roasted suckling pig would be a great centerpiece at my next party.
While we don't have a Chinatown in Tucson, Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket and the adjoining eateries are a welcome treasure.