For a city its size Tucson offers an unusually broad range of “ethnic” restaurants, but there are still things we can’t get here. Although this is possibly the best place for those looking for a real Mexican taco on this side of the border, other styles have yet to appear. Our high-end restaurants are a real “melting pot” of influences but our street food–the Sonoran hot dog aside–keeps to its own kind. Thus there are no Korean tacos sold in Tucson.
The Korean taco s the product of real big-city close contact between immigrant groups. Made with bulgogi or similar Korean-style filling in place of the usual carne asada, it has earned the praise of L.A. and D.C. foodies and quit a bit of journalistic attention. Passing through LA on the way back from holiday travel, I thought I’d have dinner at one of the most recommended Korean taco stands, only to find it closed on Sundays. The diversion was not a total waste of time. Headed back to I-10, I found something else we can’t get in Tucson: Chinese barbecue.
“Chinese barbecue” is perhaps a misnomer: the meat is neither smoked nor falling-of-the-bone tender. Instead, it’s coated and partly cured with a sweet and warmly spicy sauce and roasted over a fire. We could call it siu mei as the Cantonese do, but that’s too close to “shu mai”, which is something completely different. Sometimes it’s used as seasoning meat in Chinese cooking–“barbecue pork” is sold at Grant-Stone Supermarket for that purpose–but it also exists as a standalone specialty cuisine much like pizza or barbecue does in the West.
Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, CA is home to more than a handful of Chinese barbecue restaurants. Among these is U2 BBQ, a full-service sit-down restaurant that also offers a “regular” 74-item menu and dishes that make the “interesting” stuff at China Phoenix or Guilin look tame. “Pumpkin with fish maw broth”, “Dried scallops with egg white fried rice” and plenty of slow-cooked offal (lou mei) aren’t even on a secret Chinese menu.
The featured item (other than the apparently popular tripe), of course, is Chinese barbecued pork, duck, and chicken, and it is good, short of excellent only because it’s a bit on the dry side. Dry, but extremely flavorful, with the sweet and subtly spicy lacquer bringing out the taste of the meat like salt in a soup. A very fresh orange sauce with contrasting spices–coriander instead of cinnamon and black cardamom–is served on the side and balances things out. Diners must be a bit careful; so used to Americanized Chinese food I bit down hard on a duck bone. Meat at U2 is served in the authentic Chinese style, bone-in and cross-cut, just like in cookbooks.
The two-item combination suggested to me by charmingly pushy waitstaff was huge, containing nearly half a duck, the equivalent amount of pork, and double that in rice, plus homestyle baby bok choy, minestrone (no joke) and a sweet bean porridge, and only cost $6. Bargains like that are hard to find, except perhaps over the border in Mexico. If driving to LA or through LA from Tucson, U2 BBQ, located three minutes’ driving away from I-10 at 1200 E. Valley Boulevard, would not be a bad choice for a lunch break.