Tightly seated around one of the few communal tables in the narrow restaurant are a group of students from the Asian international program at the UA. Usually when a young crowd such as this gets together there is a lot of chatting, texting, laughing and teasing but this particular group is different. There was very little interaction between them—all I could hear was some slurping, the occasional satisfied sigh and a battle of sticks trying to get to prized meats and vegetables, steaming in deep white bowls and on large platters. The students, seemingly, are in a bit of a trance.
"Most of them were here last night but the group keeps getting bigger," Sky Dragon manager Lili Wong told me. "They always tell us this is the most authentic Chinese food they have ever had here in the states. They would know of course."
Sky Dragon, humbly hidden between a Jerry Bob's and a credit union in a shopping strip at the corner of Prince and Campbell, debuted to little or no fanfare less than a year ago but has quickly garnered a cult following, one that will only grow as the word about them gets out. The food served at Sky Dragon is some of the tastiest and most creative Asian cuisine found nearly anywhere and for that we have Lili's dad to thank.
Jimmy Wong grew up working in kitchens back in China and graduated with honors from a renowned culinary school in his hometown of Hong Kong. Soon after, he began to make a name for himself in popular restaurants around the bustling city but it was a call from a restauranteur here in Tucson that brought him and his wife, Mary, to America more than 20 years ago.
After getting several successful concepts up and running, as well as raising both Lili and her younger brother, Ki, who helps out when he can around the restaurant when he's not attending the UA, Jimmy and Mary knew that it was time to open their own place.
"We were so lucky to get this location," cites Lili as a lunch rush comes to an end and Jimmy and Mary prepare for dinner service back in the kitchen. "It's central, it's near the university, so we hope people will come by and eat what real Cantonese and Szechuan food is supposed to taste like."
In the short time Sky Dragon has been opened they have yet to disappoint, rather they surprise and delight with each new dish that is prepared. Their take on Peking Duck will win anyone over who has always thought this was a greasy and fatty dish. It can be, just not here. This is fall off the wing righteousness, full of deep rich flavor with a crispy skin that is more delicate wafer than a chewy bit of fowl. A specialty of Sky Dragon's everyone needs to try is the delectable Citrus Pinecone Fish. First off, no, there is no such thing as a pinecone fish (although they do serve Lion Head Fish that is in the goldfish family—but that's a different dish altogether), rather it is the way the seafood is scored, prepared and cooked that gives it a "pinecone" effect. It is tender, flavorful and tangy, with a good citrus bite without a hint of overt fishiness.
"We source locally as much as possible," Ki notes on the freshness of their fish, meats and produce. "For a particular dish we had a bunch of Maine lobsters flown in overnight. We can make you anything you want as long has you have specific instructions or bring in the ingredients."
Lili then giggles. "One customer actually brought in squab and some abalone. Our dad cooked him a dish and the customer loved it. So, yes, we sort of have a secret menu ... as long as you let us know what you want well in advance."
Speaking of which, the current menu is about to get some changes, just a tweaking from chef Jimmy on items that aren't selling as expected and to introduce even more scrumptious Chinese delicacies. One dish that needs your full attention once it becomes official is their Mala Hot Pot. This bowl of spicy broth insanity has a lot going on. There are rustic cuts of vegetables as well as generous pieces of chicken, beef, pork and fish; a torrid bowl of culture, imagination and flavor, one of which is sure to appease those fans of true Cantonese cooking and who that have yet to be indoctrinated into the fold. Sure some of the chef's specials might take a while but the trip is so worth it.
You just can't rush perfection.
"One regular patron said he only came across food such as ours in California and China," smiles Lili. "That makes us so happy because we believe our food tells a story. We want to bring our family's story here to Tucson."
The Wong's story can be summed up in one.