THE TUCSON ASIAN FOOD EXPERIENCE: Korean and Vietnamese

By on January 15, 2012

Editor’s note. One of the eternal verities is that the only reason to travel is to eat, and I’m grateful to Doug Mitchell for pointing out hidden Asian gems in Tucson.  I’m gonna go next fall when I’M THERE.  You should too.  lwe

Korean Tofu Soup

by Doug Mitchell

When we first arrived in Tucson in 2006, we were hard pressed to find any really good Asian food here. There were a couple of Chinese/American restaurants, a small, really unattractive Korean place, and a smattering of Japanese eateries that left me reconsidering the whole sashimi experience.

I don’t know what has happened in only six years, but today, with the exception of Chinese, it’s almost impossible to swing a chopstick in Tucson without hitting a virtual plethora of Asian restaurants, most of which are exceptional. Here’s couple you might consider next time you visit Old Pueblo Town.

I’m told TakaMatsu was actually in existence when we got here, but somehow missed our radar. A few years ago, it burned to the ground as a result of a kitchen fire and disappeared from the scene. In order to get our fix of traditional Korean fare, we had to drive a couple of hours to Chandler, Arizona, and as a result, it became a stop along the way whenever we visited Phoenix or points north. Last year, it reopened and is now serving up some of the finest Korean barbeque this side of LA’s Korea Town.

The place is huge, with about ten oversized tables solely devoted to the Korean specialty, each complete with its own hibachi. I don’t know if the Koreans invented barbeque, but they sure have perfected it.

Korean barbecue: bulgogi

Unlike traditional American BBQ, the Korean fare is not cooked at low temperatures for hours on end. It’s a rather quick cook over a very hot fire that separates this from Texas and Kansas City and most assuredly Bobby Flay. The portions are enormous and are brought to the table completely raw (unless you are just plain lazy and ask that the stuff be prepared in the kitchen, which kind of defeats the whole purpose.)

The idea is for you to cook it yourself over the hot grill. There are about a dozen items available, all of which are authentically Korean, including Kalbi, arguably the world’s best beef short ribs, Bulgogi, a serving of thin-sliced rib eye steak marinated in the most deliciously sweet sauce, and Pork Belly, thick-sliced and simply crying out for some hot flame.

All the dishes are served with grillable accompaniments of hot peppers, thick slices of pungent onion, garlic, mushrooms, fresh lettuce wrappers and the proper sauces. And, as in most Korean restaurants, the meals are preceded by at least six to eight small dishes of various types of kimchee, pickled vegetables, fungus, radishes, marinated bean sprouts and soup (Koreans love their soup.) Not only is it all incredible food, it’s an entire evening of entertainment without having to do the dishes.

TakaMatsu also serves a full menu of other Korean favorites like Soon Doo Bu soup, Bibim Bap and Jap Chae. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a complete menu of Japanese food as well as one of the largest and best stocked Sushi bars in the city. We’ve been there a dozen times, and haven’t begun to work our way through the menu. TakaMatsu is on East Speedway Boulevard and is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.

Korean Kimchee

Contact: TakaMatsu

5532 East Speedway Boulevard  Tucson, AZ 85712
(520) 512-0800

It can be generally agreed that not much good came out of our involvement in the Vietnam War.

However, at the end of it, we saw an influx of Vietnamese coming to our shores and adding to the ever growing culture of our society. Like most other peoples who have made that journey, they have contributed greatly to our American experience in many ways, not the least of which is with their wonderful cuisine.

Korean Japchae

Com Tam Thuan Kieu is never going to win a Zagat’s award for service or décor. The restaurant is too bright, too loud (there are three TVs on at all times) and almost industrial plain. The only way to describe the service is “quaint,” and some would say just plain irritating. Don’t go there for that. Go for the food.

If you can put up with the rest of it, the Pho, the traditional soup of Viet Nam, is one of the best I’ve ever tasted, and the red rice dishes are suburb. The menu is extensive, with at least a couple of hundred combinations available.

The best way for a beginner to start is probably with a combination platter of assorted goodies, including hair-thin slices of pork skin, Vietnamese meatballs, grilled shrimp and various rolls, accompanied by fresh lettuce leaves, vermicelli patties and Nuoc Mam, Vietnam’s version of the traditional fish sauce of Southeast Asia.

The idea is to wrap the noodle, meat specialty and some sauce in the lettuce and, well, you get the rest. Be aware, there will be times when food will simply not appear at your table, and the waiter will bring your tea as you’re walking out the door, but bear in mind that we have been eating Vietnamese food since the 70s, and this is one of our favorite eateries in all of Tucson.

Com Tam Thuan Kieu is in the Lee Lee Asian Market 1990 Orange Grove Boulevard in Tucson, and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday though Sunday.  520 638 7912

 

About Doug Mitchell

One Comment

  1. Peg Bowden

    January 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Hi Doug,
    I love Miss Saigon, on Campbell close to Speedway. The pho is wonderful, with the bowl of basil and assorted condiments to throw in. Vietnamese food is one of my faves, and I will check out your recommendations. (I live near the border and get hungry for good Asian food)

    Peg Bowden