When I moved to Tucson in 2001, the first thing I searched for was the best Asian food. First I searched for good Chinese food. After trying no less than eight restaurants in three weeks, I came to the horrifying conclusion that decent Chinese food was a rarity (or nonexistent) in Tucson (subsequent testing of additional restaurants has proved my theory). Then I sought out good Vietnamese food– well, any Vietnamese food. I’d grown up in Houston, Texas, which has a substantial Vietnamese population and amazing Vietnamese restaurants, and we’d spent a lot of time at them. (Where else could you feed a family of five for $20?) I figured in a town as small as Tucson, there probably wasn’t too much to choose from. True. I only found a couple places. One was conveniently close, but the service was so amazingly slow that it was a two hour event for a two course meal. Also, they used an awful lot of canned ingredients– and if you know anything at all about Vietnamese food, you know that it’s all about the fresh ingredients and flavors. The two hour wait was not at all worth the meal. Another place that served mostly pho bowls and spring rolls was passable, but not really what one was looking for in the way of a full Vietnamese feast.
And then, after living in Tucson for six years, I found Ha Long Bay. The angels sang. Situated in the bizarre El Mercado shopping plaza on the southeast corner of Wilmot and Broadway, Ha Long Bay is tucked inside the plaza in such a way as to be almost invisible. I would never have known they were there if someone hadn’t told me. Their front door faces the front door of Choc-Alot, and I’d suggest parking on that side.
The decor is plain and unassuming, and the service is prompt and friendly without being smothering. I’ve been lucky enough to be served primarily by the same server each time I’ve gone, and she’s been excellent at recommending different dishes to try. I think she wanted me to branch out from my favorite dish– Canh ChuaTom (also known as Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup). When I saw this dish on the menu, I was so excited I bounced in my seat and could barely pay attention to the dinner conversation, so crazed with anticipation was I to see if it was as good as I remembered. It was. My mother accompanied me on my second visit to Ha Long Bay, and she didn’t quite believe me when I told her that it was almost identical to the Canh ChuaTom of my childhood. She was amazedwhen she tasted it– and then she ate half of my meal. Which was no problem, because the portion size is generous, as it is usually with Vietnamese dishes. The only complaint I have about my Canh ChuaTom was that the pineapple was canned, not fresh. It does make a difference. On the plus side, Ha Long Bay knows how to cook fish and shellfish, and I have yet to encounter an overcooked piece of seafood. My mother tried her favorite, Ca Kho To (Vietnamese Fish Simmered in Caramel Sauce), and she didn’t find it spicy enough for her liking, but generally good. We all shared spring rolls (somewhat like eggrolls, but a little lighter, which you wrap in fresh lettuce and dip in a spicy sauce flecked with fresh carrot) and summer rolls, Cháº£ gi, which are cold rice and shrimp rolls wrapped in a cold rice wrapper (not fried) and served with a fresh peanut sauce. Both of these appetizers were perfect and left nothing to be desired.
On subsequent visits, a friend who was more a fan of Chinese food than Vietnamese food discovered that many of the dishes further into the menu were much more like Chinese food than any Vietnamese food I’ve ever experienced– heavy sauces, more traditionally Chinese combinations of ingredients. I tried his dishes, and they tasted like good Chinese fare to me. So it seems that I’ve found the place to come for Vietnamese and Chinese food.
For desert, I tried the fried banana, a favorite of my childhood. The ones I ate as a child had been deep-fried in a thick, sweet batter, and then doused with brandy (?) and set afire tableside. They were amazing. The fried banana at Ha Long Bay is a disappointment– an overripe banana, soggy breading, and none of the faint alcohol kick of the ones I’m used to (no tableside lighting afire). The cooks of Ha Long Bay could improve this dish 50% just by using green, not-quite-ripe bananas, as the deep-frying does quite a number on the consistency of the fruit.
All in all, Ha Long Bay is a delight for those who just want to eat good Asian food. The service, the food, the family-friendliness, and– did I mention the food? Go out of your way to check out Ha Long Bay. You won’t find any better in Tucson. Believe me. I’ve tried.