Not Your Average Kung Pao

Posted October 10, 2007 in Eats

 Growing up in a Chinese restaurant, having the run and pick of anything in the kitchen, having a grandmother cook whatever fragrant-smelling Chinese entrée I wanted for lunch in elementary school, surviving on food shoved lovingly into mouths that dorm food has mummified . . . any of this would make anybody spoiled. And growing up with the real thing spoils people. So I regard Chinese restaurants outside of Chinatowns or Chinese-dominated communities with obvious suspicion—think teriyaki chicken and California rolls as the main fare at a Japanese restaurant, and you’ll know what I mean. 

Flash forward to a recent Sunday afternoon, Significant Other and I looking for an Indian restaurant and finding none open outside the all-you-can-eat hours of 11 till 3. I hear the steadily-rising panic and stomach-churning gurgles from Starvin’ Marvin next to me, and before I even lodge a protest, he’s parked in front of a Chinese restaurant—outside of Chinatown, in Diamond Bar. Afraid of risking the sanctity of marriage over male hunger, I reluctantly follow Marvin in.

Mandarin Taste anchors the end of a mini Indian marketplace. It’s large, bedecked in palatial teaks, lucky golds and reds, and word-to-the-wise Chinese proverbs that I can neither read nor pretend to decipher. A quick scan of the dining room reveals no native life forms, save for the single Chinese family huddled in a corner of the banquet room.  This might be a good omen—but one that turns ominous by the bowl of crispy chow mein noodles they shove at us. Perfect white boy food!

Scanning the picture book of Szechwan and Hunan specialties, with the hubby tossing out numbers and names (fish filet with black bean sauce, lemon scallops, sizzling this and that, chicken in red sauce over spinach), my eyes come across something I’ve never seen before—a Hunan-styled lamb dish. In fact, I’ve never seen lamb on any menu in Chinatown, and this piques my interest. What seals the deal is a steamed whole rock cod lavishly garnished by ginger and scallions. Mandarin Taste definitely has game.

The place grows on me, especially when our waiter, a friendly doff who unwittingly looks like the evil mastermind from Enter the Dragon, brings me a plate of vinegary sweet-pickled vegetables (cabbage, carrots and rings of jalapeño peppers with seeds attached) to munch idly on as our fish endures its half-hour agony in the wok.

I discover that Mandarin Taste has been open since 1984, and is the baby of restaurateur Charlie Feng, a guy who owns three other digs—two in L.A.-area Chinatowns, and one of the same namesake in Anaheim Hills. I guess for a guy running shop in two ethnically diverse locales, the food must be somewhat authentic.

About 20 minutes pass when we get our first entrée, the Hunan-styled lamb with black mushrooms, bamboo shoots and red and yellow bell peppers. The lean, julienne strips of lamb are cooked in a sweetened sauce akin to Hoisin sauce, but have enough of a zip to put movement to the hips. Our whole steamed rock cod arrives moments later, a behemoth that would feed an army of Xian soldiers. The cod glistens in its oil and soy bath, scallions and ginger strips sticking on its silvery pink skin, and it rocks in wholesome goodness, cooked to the proper tenderness. The silky flesh glides down my throat, and I detect no rubbery toughness anywhere on the entire fish. It warms me just like dad’s version did.

Mandarin Taste brings back all the childhood spoils of home, and more. As this spoiled girl now knows, what you see is not always what you get.


Mandarin Taste, 23391 E. Golden Springs Dr., Diamond Bar, (909) 861-1819. Dinner for two, around $40.



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