Year Of The Dragon

Tucson Has Some Decent Contenders For Excellent Chinese Food.

By Rebecca Cook

A CLOSE FRIEND has this to say about Chinese food: "Either it's really bad or it tastes as it should. Really great Chinese food? I don't know what that's all about."

There was a time when I thought I knew what great Chinese food was. It was a long time ago, and the memories of vivid flavors and discernible textures have faded, but I do recall some occasional wow meals. I just didn't happen to be in Tucson at the time.

Chow For whatever reason, Tucson has the unfortunate reputation of having no outlets for outstanding Chinese food. Whether this is indeed the case or merely the impression of a town drenched in the glow of Sonoran-style Mexican food is hard to say. All I know is that everyone I know who fancies the notion that exceptional Chinese food does indeed exist is always on the lookout for restaurants to validate this caprice. New restaurants are especially worthy of further exploration, but so too are the older establishments that garner a significant word-of-mouth reputation. Wong's Guang-Zhou and Ba-Dar Chinese Restaurants, both located on East Broadway, are just such places, necessitating further investigation.

Guang-Zhou is the new kid on the block: a tiny restaurant nestled just off East Broadway and Camino Seco near a row of small strip mall businesses. The owners have made every effort to make the bright, spare space clean and comfortable. The staff is friendly and welcoming; everyone, including the cook emerging from her kitchen to see if every table is enjoying their meals, seems bent on making your dining experience at Guang-Zhou a positive one. With that kind of effort and attention, it's tough to criticize the place. Fortunately, Guang-Zhou has more to recommend it than just the staff's winsome geniality.

Daily lunch specials are particularly inviting--meals that include your choice of several familiar entrees, egg or vegetarian spring roll, steamed or fried rice, and hot-and-sour or egg drop soup, all for $3.95. You won't go away hungry, and the noontime format provides a great opportunity to sample a variable selection of Guang-Zhou's offerings. (A shorter menu is available for $2.99, sans egg roll or soup.)

Specializing in Cantonese and Szechuan styles, Guang-Zhou is particularly adept at the sizzling grill, with Mongolian beef one of its suggested signature dishes. Their version contains slender slices of beef marinated to a degree of tenderness unknown in many local venues, and the flavor insinuates a distinct impression of garlic and five-spice powder (a fusion of cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns). Served with a small bundle of stir-fried green onion spears over a bed of crispy rice noodles, this is a dish that could bring the kids back for more. My only disappointment is that it failed to be as *hot & spicy as the menu warned, a lapse which I'm confident a simple request for more heat would quickly remedy.

Mushrooms with barbecued pork was also quite good, the meat again tender, this time coated in a rich, glossy sauce with hints of ginger and soy, and the whole redolent with the woodsy flavor of button mushrooms.

And what would a standard visit to a Chinese restaurant be without the requisite sweet-and-sour dish? This time the chicken got the sticky treatment, and it passed muster on almost all counts. The breaded coating was neither thick nor overwhelming, the rosy sauce maintained the viscous balance of its moniker, and the vegetables (green pepper, carrot and onion) possessed that pleasing, crunchy character.

The egg rolls were serviceable if a tad doughy; and the fried rice was especially tasty with its bits of scrambled egg, peas and carrots.

All in all, Guang-Zhou serves Chinese food "as it should be," with a few meanderings towards the wow side. Certainly the Mongolian beef flirts with greatness, and I've recently received a tip that the walnut chicken might do the same. If you like Chinese food, this is a restaurant to keep your eye on.

WATCHING A RESTAURANT'S reputation grow has been a familiar pastime for legions of dining fans who've made Ba-Dar one of their top Tucson choices among Chinese eateries. In the last few years, the place has worked its way into many a conversation. It seemed time to check out the slew of praiseworthy recommendations.

As you pull up to Ba-Dar, it's obvious the restaurant has garnered a more sizable following than its new neighbor up the road. The small parking lot under the restaurant's prominent signage is nearly filled with cars at peak hours. The interior reflects a more settled, Chinese-themed décor. Plush booths line the side walls, tasseled banners with Chinese characters hang from the ceiling, and the lengthy aquarium near the entrance lends the space a lived-in yet festive ambiance.

Ba-Dar's menu is lengthy and at times surprising. Fresh fish preparations (including squid, scallops and lobster) figure not only on the regular menu, but are frequently featured in daily specials offered in disparate styles. There's even evidence of cross-cultural influence with Japanese teriyaki and teppanyaki also on the list.

Depending on your choice of entrée, lunch specials at Ba-Dar range from $3.95 to $4.95, with an early bird dinner special for $5.99 served between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. daily. All specials include an appetizer, soup and fried rice.

A combination appetizer tray was a satisfactory way to ward off hunger, even though the selected morsels were a bit on the greasy side (the glistening chins are always a dead giveaway). We sampled the vegetarian egg rolls, crab rangoons (puffs), fried wonton, BBQ ribs, fried shrimp and soy chicken wrapped in foil.

We tried to stray from the ordinary in our selections, which isn't difficult at Ba-Dar. We opted for a crispy fish served on fresh shredded cabbage, and the sesame chicken, asterisked to indicate a piquant preparation.

This time the punctuation didn't lie--the dish was blessed with an aurora of suffused heat. Tender chunks of chicken had been lightly breaded and fried, and then amply coated in an umber sauce rich with the nutty flavor of sesame and the salty tang of soy. Although the fiery chicken matched up nicely with staid steamed, white rice, the lack of vegetables in the dish proved ultimately discouraging. Being able to eat a balanced meal in one serving is one of the most appealing aspects of Chinese food.

The same could also be said of the crispy fish. The fish itself was delicious: cubes of white fish lightly dipped in a crisp, flaky coating and fried until barely golden, the meat still moist and tender. But the bed of raw cabbage it was served on seemed a poor substitute for a nice stir-fry of garden vegetables.

Regrettably, our sampling of Ba-Dar's vast selections was minimal, and we look forward to return visits in order to make a thorough study of the menu. On first impressions, the restaurant maintains a solid, "as it should be" with something extra in terms of variety.

In the final analysis: The time for rave reviews has not yet arrived, but both Wong's Guang-Zhou and Ba-Dar deserve careful consideration.

Wong's Guang-Zhou Chinese Restaurant. 8407 E. Broadway Blvd. 721-5823. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to
9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No liquor. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $2-$7.99.

Ba-Dar Chinese Restaurant. 7321 E. Broadway Blvd. 296-8888. Open 11 a.m. to
9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11:30 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Beer and wine. V. MC, checks. Menu items: $3.75-$12.95. TW

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