421 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura
In case you missed it, Ventura has an unofficial “taco district” consisting of 14 Mexican restaurants along Ventura Avenue. In other words, Ventura Avenue is ripe with choice for tacos. What it lacks is, well, choice for much else. Enter Mandala Express: The Avenue’s one-stop shop for something different, though there is a unique burrito on the menu.
Mandala Express comes by way of Om Thai Cuisine in Oak View, whose owners found a former Mexican restaurant on Ventura Avenue to transform into a walk-up fast diner featuring a who’s who of Asian Fusion, mostly highlighting Chinese and Japanese items. Only six or so months ago, a cart outside of the same venue cooked up carnitas for passersby. Now it serves chow mein and sushi burritos to curious Avenue residents.
At its grand opening, Mandala Express hosted a DJ pumping boisterous music out onto the street. Located directly across from Bell Arts, the small eatery is incredibly unassuming with one large window and a metal door recently painted white. Inside, a few tables welcome visitors who wish to eat in.
Personally, I was excited. While I love and appreciate the Avenue’s range of Mexican establishments (most of which are family owned), sometimes I just want a big bowl of noodles without having to leave the comfort of my neighborhood.
Mandala Express welcomed me with a delightful aroma of garlic and chili frying on the griddle, and by the looks of the opening weekend crowd, I wasn’t the only one enticed. I chose to take my food to go as the music pumped a little louder than my stomach rumbled.
You can have a combo from one to three entrees and a side, with choices ranging from orange chicken to beef broccoli. Sides include steamed or fried rice, chow mein or a green salad ($6.50-10.95).
My first choice, however, was á la carte: the vegetable chow mein ($8.95). This is an old school dish that could be considered comfort food for those of us who grew up with Chinese takeout on weekends. The noodles were cooked well, seasoned generously and tossed with fresh cabbage, carrots and onion. I watched with fleeting patience as the noodles came off the griddle and into my takeout box.
Along with the noodles I ordered a vegetable roll ($4.50), which came stuffed with avocado, cucumber and seaweed salad. I expected a small portion, noting my experience at certain unnamed sushi joints — which offer vegetables rolls the size of a roll of quarters at a premium — but was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of the portion. One vegetable roll would be filling enough for lunch — along with any of the other sushi options, including a California roll, spicy tuna roll or tempura roll ($4.50 and $5.50, respectively).
Lastly, because I just can’t get enough of the fusion phenomena of years past, I ordered a sushi burrito ($8.50). What basically amounts to a very large, uncut sushi roll was stuffed with avocado, tofu, seaweed salad and a teriyaki sauce, wrapped up in rice and seaweed and served in a facsimile of a carne asada burrito one could get across the way at Taqueria Tepatitlan.
I also ordered a few vegetable egg rolls ($4.50) to go because, why not? We were going to have a feast on Mandala Express as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gesture . . . might as well throw in an appetizer, too.
Mandala Express wows not with creativity, per se, but with knowing how to produce classic dishes very well while serving your more modern items with expertise. The noodles were a throwback: I envisioned myself with a packet of soy sauce and chopsticks, chowing down in front of The X-Files. These noodles were what I wanted and had expected: flavorful, well done and filling.
The sushi was rolled as well as you’d find at a restaurant specializing in only sushi. The flavors meld very well together, including with the seaweed, which was a nice addition to the otherwise blasé filling of avocado and cucumber. The sushi burrito stole the show with its teriyaki sauce and light tartness from the rice splashed with vinegar.
A few weeks have passed since last I dined at Mandala Express, but it doesn’t appear that the crowds are going anywhere. This side of Ventura needed an option of its nature to break up the monotony, or better, to come to appreciate the wide variety of tacos, burritos, mole and what-have-you available on every block. After all, no one wants to get bored of tacos. Mandala Express stands on its own as a welcome addition to the Ventura Avenue area and, specifically, to the Taco District.