June 25, 2008

Tucson Restaurant Offers Tastes of Thailand,China and Russia

By Valerie Vinyard, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Jun. 25--C.K. Chan gently placed the Vietnamese pepper beef on our table at Cafe Pacific restaurant.

"We're the only restaurant in Tucson to serve this dish," he said with pride.

Then the 69-year-old smoothly demonstrated the ways to eat the dish:

Wrapped up in the crisp leaves of green lettuce, with crumbled shrimp toasts. Or piled onto the shrimp toasts. Or set aside the accouterments and simply indulge in the meat itself.

Chan is determined that diners feel welcomed and comfortable at his Tucson restaurant.

And they do.

Cafe Pacific, tucked away in a strip mall that includes a Safeway, is marked by personal service and an eclectic menu with an Asian accent.

Chan and his wife, Ellen, hail from Hong Kong. He explained that he has taken what he thinks are the best dishes at the best restaurants in that city -- that adds up to about 80 items -- and made them central to his restaurant here.

What you'll find is a menu with a bit of China, a bit of Thailand and even a bit of Russia.

That pepper beef ($18.95), for example, hailed from Vietnam. Sure, the chuck rib roast was gristly, but it was also fat with flavor.

Cafe Pacific opened more than nine years ago, and the Chans have lived in Tucson for 13.

An appetizer of pot stickers ($8.95) came out of the kitchen awfully fast. Chan explained that the six pot stickers are pre-boiled and then flash-fried to order. The pork-filled crepes were light on the gingery taste that gives pot stickers their signature kick. But once we dunked them in a side of soy sauce laced with vinegar, we were able to forget and enjoy.

The spicy Thai shrimp ($16.95) is something I've ordered a dozen times over the years and will be one of the reasons I'll return to Cafe Pacific.

Six succulent, jumbo shrimp with their tails on arrived on a layer of spicy Thai chile sauce and topped with sprigs of cilantro. The meaty shrimp were coated with a light batter and ringed with red pepper strips.

The sweetness and fire from chiles, vinegar and garlic from the chile sauce made the dish one to remember. A side of rice added substance.

Another side of spicy slaw wasn't kidding around. One bite of the red-tinged cabbage, carrot slivers and onion was enough to make one dive for the fresh-brewed passion-fruit iced tea. It was one of those almost-too-spicy-but-can't-put-it-down foods. Chan later explained that the slaw gets spicier the longer it marinates in the chiles.

The spicy Thai shrimp was listed under "Exotic dinner selections," which come with a cup of soup. We chose the borscht, a beet soup commonly found in Russia. Chan obtained the recipe from a Russian restaurant in Hong Kong. Hot and sour, miso and egg flower soup are other options.

The borscht takes three to four hours to create and starts with a tomato-based broth and beef marrow.

Cafe Pacific's wasn't a typical borscht, which tends to be thicker and served with a dollop of sour cream.

It was amazing how many vegetables could be in such a modest-sized cup. Beets, cabbage, carrot, onion, celery and chunks of beef floated in the rich broth tinged with Tabasco and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. The spices took several bites to build, leaving a lingering warm feeling in our mouths.

Another seafood dish, the spicy fillet of sole in black bean sauce ($18.95), was more basic but still satisfying. The chunks of lightly battered sole swam in a thick sea of red and green bell peppers and yellow onions. Though the dish was called spicy, not one bite made the taste buds jump and stand at attention. The soy-based flavors were more of a pleasant stir fry.

A who's who of crisp, colorful veggies dominated the vegetable medley ($10.95). Broccoli, cabbage, celery, snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots were bathed in a mild, slightly sweet sauce that allowed the vegetables to stand out in their crunchy greatness. Boiled and then fried peanuts and cashews topped the dish, adding a meaty flavor.

A side of white rice added the oh-so-important carb element to the meal. Leftovers the next day were still fresh-tasting. If anything, the sauce had more time to permeate the vegetables and create more of a union.

The spicy lemongrass chicken ($16.95) wasn't particularly spicy, or rich in the sour-lemon flavor of lemongrass. And the strips of white chicken meat were dry from overcooking. Still, this dish seduced with its textures -- crunch from peanuts and a side of raw salad veggies, and a silky sense from vermicelli. And, of course, pile on the vinegary Vietnamese dipping sauce laced with lime and red pepper, and almost anything becomes hyped up with flavor.

No desserts are served at Cafe Pacific, but we would have been hard-pressed to finish one anyway. The fortune cookies that accompanied the check were plenty of sweetness for an overall satisfying experience.

Restaurant review

cafe pacific

3607 N. Campbell Ave., 326-5174

--Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; noon-9 p.m. Sundays. Closed Tuesdays.

--Family call: Everyone. There's no kids menu, but everyone likes rice, right?

--Noise level: Low.

--Dress: Casual.

--Reservations: Accepted.

--Menus: Lunch and dinner.

--Vegetarian options: Many.

--Wine list: A modest list ($24-$48) includes bottles from Italy, Australia, California and Oregon. Also, plum wine and sake are available.

--Price range: Entrees range from $10.95 to $52 for a slow-roasted Peking duck. A lunch menu until 2:30 p.m. lists more than 15 entrees for $7.50 that include a cup of soup, fried or steamed rice and an egg roll or fried wonton.

--Et cetera: The Mandarin Chinese songs you'll hear at the restaurant were all performed by co-owner Ellen Chan and recorded at her home.

--Contact reporter Valerie Vinyard at 573-4136 or [email protected]


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