Tucson’s regional Chinese cuisine scene just gained another contender: Yu Zi Wei.
The restaurant at 2601 E. Speedway Blvd. previously held Szechuan Omei, which closed after four decades in business.
A Chinese friend invited me to join him at Yu Zi Wei for dinner since the restaurant was the latest buzz among the Chinese students at the University of Arizona.
I searched online for more details but didn’t find any references for such a restaurant in Tucson. But that’s all the more reason for me to visit, right?
Upon arrival, I noticed a small “we’re open” sign on the gate and a Chinese poster of a parchment paper-wrapped fish. The restaurant emitted a garlicky, spicy, and citrusy fragrance.
I opened the door, which was still covered in Szechuan Omei award stickers. Although I didn’t experience the restaurant as Szechuan Omei, I imagine the restaurant had minor renovations. The wooden tables were surrounded by white walls, white pendant lamps, and white-framed photographs of food.
About 90% of customers were college-aged and Chinese — two-thirds of which were in athletic T-shirts and basketball shorts, and a third of those folks were wearing round eyeglasses. Yeezys were also in the mix.
The server briskly handed us menus and waters and walked away. Rather than offering any Americanized Chinese cuisine, Yu Zi Wei specializes in Chongqing whole fish hot pot.
Customers choose between grilled or paper-wrapped, choose a flavor, choose a fish ($29.99 for two pounds of medaka or $29.99 for three pounds of flounder), and choose add-ons for an additional cost.
The regulars recommended the fish grilled with the house special spicy sauce, so that’s what I opted for.
I looked up “medaka fish” online and saw something resembling a goldfish. Not appetizing. I looked up the Chinese character from the menu and saw something resembling a catfish instead. Not my first choice for fish, but since it cost more per pound than the flounder, I figured it was probably more of a delicacy.
I circled “medaka” and several recommended add-ons on the paper menu then handed it to the server.
About 15 minutes later, the server returned with the fish hot pot and plugged it into the wall. The fish — which looked like a carp — was fresh, cooked through, and tender. The vermicelli noodles, celery slices, and bean sprouts were also ready to eat.
However, the add-ons such as the potatoes, dry bean curd sheet, and lotus root slices needed extra time simmering in the pot to reach sufficient tenderness. It took about 10-minutes for the pot to reach a rolling simmer.
The house broth was indeed spicy, with a generous amount of garlic and floral, grassy notes from the Sichuan pepper and celery. The humble potato slices ended up being some of the tastiest bits after cooking through and soaking in the broth. The overall portion was large enough to generously feed two people.
Heads up — don’t wait around for a check. Pay with the cashier after eating.
Since opening, Yu Zi Wei has expanded its menu to include an assortment of cold dish appetizers, crawfish entrées, fried rice, Chongqing/Sichuan stir-fries, and bing, labeled pork with Chinese pita on the menu.
Service was a bit trickier due to the language barrier, but the unique, addictive spice made it worth the visit.
I’ll definitely return to try the other unique Chongqing specialties including bing, spicy jelly noodle, chicken feet with pickled pepper, mapo tofu, real deal kung pao chicken, poached beef slice in hot chili oil (also known as water boiled beef), and spicy crawfish.
Yu Zi Wei is located at 2601 E. Speedway Blvd.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran’s Fats. Although he is best known locally for his work for Tucson Foodie, his work has also appeared in publications such as Bon...