Tableside theatrics and top-notch food at the Mandarin House
4020 E. Main St.
Though it boasts an unassuming exterior in a humble strip mall location, Mandarin House Chinese Restaurant is everything you want your neighborhood Chinese restaurant to be. Replete with aquarium in the entryway, leather booths, Asian prints on the wall, and red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, it also comes with a grand menu full of both traditional and unique dishes. The wait staff dress simply in black and white and bustle through the restaurant with trays of hot rice and steaming soups. Though the prices are modest and the food superb, it is the servers, with their attention to detail and tableside displays, who make dining at this restaurant a memorable experience.
Stopping in on a recent Friday night, our meal began with a pot of hot tea and then Szechuan hot and sour soup for two ($4.95). It arrived at the table in a beautiful serving bowl, which our server gently set before us. As it steamed, he carefully ladled it into our individual bowls, and I could tell it wasn’t going to be your average meal. The soup is packed with chicken, soft strands of egg, tender bean curd and crunchy bamboo shoots. White pepper and a dash of chili oil bring just enough spice to perk up the mouth, but not so much as to make the eyes water. Since this broth-based soup is traditionally thickened with corn starch, if not done right, it can become too thick and gelatinous; but this is not the case at Mandarin House.
We chose a couple of entrees, knowing that the goal was to eat well that night, but also have enough for leftovers tomorrow. The moo shu pork arrived first. Working on a tray adjacent to the table, our server began the tedious job of assembling the dish. Using only a pair of tongs and a spoon, he carefully fills each of the four pancakes with a delectable filling made of pork, shredded cabbage, bamboo and egg in a plum sauce. Still using his tongs, he rolled each pancake up, burrito style, and set them on our plates. The buildup of watching him work intensified our anticipation, and when we finally bit into our food, the result tasted like a masterpiece: tender filling, crisp vegetables, sweet sauce against the mild pancake.
The sizzling seafood ($16.95) also came with tableside fanfare. A generous portion of crispy rice is spooned onto a piping hot cast iron plate, creating a loud sizzle and dramatic steam. The seafood mixture — a blend of shrimp, scallops and fish with vegetables in a mild sauce — is then poured on top. The rice was crunchy like a rice cake; the seafood was cooked perfectly, and each bite was tender. The sauce was mellow and subdued, allowing us to fully appreciate the true, somewhat sweet taste and the perfect texture of the seafood.
Now to the spicy tangerine beef ($11.95). This is the house version of what many other restaurants call orange beef, a truly commendable dish that doesn’t get much attention since sweet and sour pork and kung pao chicken usually steal the spotlight. It is described it in the menu like so: “If you like all the beef with no vegetables, this is the one.” It is small pieces of thinly sliced beef, dipped in a batter usually made with cornstarch and egg whites, and then fried in peanut oil until crisp. The meat is tossed with a sauce that is often made of orange (or tangerine) rind, dried chili peppers, beef stock, soy sauce and sugar. The end result is a huge plateful (remember, there are no vegetables) of crispy beef in a sweet and spicy sauce. Eating it with the white rice, we found it hard to stop; but wanting to save some for tomorrow, we reluctantly pushed the plate away.
As for beverages to go with your memorable meal, there is beer, wine and a variety of festive cocktails, from the mai tai to a piña colada to something called the fu man chu elixir. It is described as similar to a milkshake, but with silver rum, sake and coconut juice. Alas, we opted for hot sake ($4.25) and red wine ($4.95). The former arrived tucked into a tea pot of hot water, and the latter arrived in a goblet filled to the brim. With the generous portions, I’m sure both drinks are adding to the festive vibe.
Throughout the evening, the service was commendable, despite a minor language barrier with our server and some initial confusion over who was responsible for our table. And though there was a one in a million mishap involving a waiter, a dropped dish of spicy yellow mustard, and a trajectory that ended on my coat and shirt, nothing could possibly overshadow this tremendous meal. There is just something about having food prepared tableside that makes you feel like you’ve really gone out. Mandarin House is a perfect stop if you’re looking to spice up a weeknight or celebrate your next special occasion.