Driving down Speedway can be its own sweet form of torture. Once heralded as the ugliest street in America, things have only steadily gone downhill. It is safe to say it is not only the ugliest street in America but also the most frequently expanded. Thanks to the amount of time I have wasted stalled on Speedway at yet another construction site, I can safely recite most of the restaurants worth visiting that are within fuming distance. That is to say: leave your car stuck in traffic and wander off to go find something to eat. It's not like traffic is going to get going again any time soon. It's amazing what you can discover.
Although the intersection at Swan and Speedway is actually moving along nicely these days I was happy to see that the building emblazoned with the words A Taste As Big As China had succumbed to new ownership--now called Dao's Hunan, it is run by the same family that has Dao's on Wilmot. I was cheered to see an attempt at a restaurant devoted to Asian cuisine.
Dao's Hunan wants to get off to a good start. The menu has some ambition. Although there is the usual round of suspects--Kung Pao this and sizzling hot plate that--there are some authentic dishes worth trying. On a recent visit, we decided to sample both tried and true, as well as foray out into the unknown. Luckily for us, the unknown provided to be the wiser of the new choices.
The appetizer list is fairly familiar. What is it with crab puffs anyway? I'm sure someone somewhere likes them but, honest to God, that nasty little smear of cream cheese wrapped and deep-fried in a wonton skin with an apology of crab tucked in there just seems like a crime against humanity. Naturally, we avoided them, but there they are if you want them.
You'd be better off trying the fried shrimp pâté on sugar cane ($6). Although this item needs a little tweaking, like a bit more shrimp in the pâté, the broiled sugar-cane skewer makes for an interesting textural twist and a great conversation piece. We even had a staged sword fight at the table. Food you can play with is the most fun, no matter what your mother said.
The charbroiled pork stick ($4) is better than it sounds. Tender folds of lemony charbroiled pork, crispy at the edges, and still sizzling hot make a great way to stave off hunger. And the skewer, not nearly as much fun as the sugar cane, can join the fray. You'll be better off avoiding the sautéed clams with basil ($7). Although the basil was abundant and of excellent quality, the clams were tough and frozen, and the broth was beyond salty.
Entrees provided us with mixed opportunities. The wins we found were among the more unusual menu items. The salmon curry ($9.95) is as strange as it sounds. Two words I never imagine in the same sentence would have to be salmon and curry, and yet the scintillating and sinuous dish winds its way across the palate. In this Thai-style curry, coconut milk and pineapple juice make an excellent foil for the rich flavors of salmon. Add tender slivers of kaffir lime, some incendiary Thai chiles and fresh basil, and the result is a strangely addictive, brightly flavored and spicy dish. I'd gladly return and order it again.
The same could be said of the lamb hot pot ($15.95). Surely not for the faint of heart, this dish plays on registers of the palate I had yet to experience. A traditional rich lamb stew, studded with substantial amounts of ginger, this rich broth is served in a steaming bowl. With it comes a mound of greens that look like lamb's foot but they're not. I wish I could tell you the name of these greens but the waiter couldn't tell us either. They are slightly furry and taste intensely of carrot tops, celery and a bit of anise. The bite of the anise marries well with the rich lamb broth. A pile of rice noodle and a bowl of fermented tofu are also served as accompaniments. One dips the greens into the lamb broth until they've just wilted. Dragging them through the fermented tofu, which tastes like mustard on steroids, is an optional step. Some at the table found this delightful and strangely addictive; others likened it to Limburger cheese. All in all, the dish works, albeit in a strange fashion. The notes are low and salty, slightly sour and bright, all at the same time. Jaded palates that are bored right now might want to venture out and try this dish.
I wish the same bold tenet carried through on the entire menu, but it does not. The Pad Thai ($8.95) was one of the worst I've had in Tucson--overcooked noodles simmered in an innocuous sauce. A handful of bean sprouts and a few pieces of chicken did nothing to brighten the dish. Missing were the usual companions that make Pad Thai such a classic: lime, fish sauce, chiles, cilantro, peanuts, chopped egg. This was such a sorry Pad Thai I won't go on.
The shrimp and scallop sizzling plate ($12.95) wasn't much better. Frozen shrimp and scallops were tossed with broccoli, carrots, onion and scallion and drenched in a fairly cloying sweet marinade. This tasted generic and tired.
The Siam Duck ($12.95) sounded promising: roasted crispy duck served in a tangerine sauce. If you like chunks of duck caramelized and served with handfuls of cashews, this might be a dish for you. I found it to be overwhelmingly rich and with none of the foils that usually make Asian cooking light and sustainable.
Your choices of beverages, however, provide you with lots of risk. More than 20 types of fruit juices are offered. We tried the salty plum, and it was really quite good. Tender, earthy overtones of plum buoy up what is similar to a salty lemonade. The soursop fruit juice is not for the meek; this frozen concoction is both milky and sour, with a jangly sweet finish. The jackfruit comprises an interesting fruity drink with a bitter finish, and the guava juice will renew any flagging faith issues you might be harboring. Most beverages are a mere $2.
In all, Dao's Hunan requires some careful negotiation, but is worthy of a visit for the adventurous at heart. Or just about anyone stuck in traffic.