9 p.m., Feb. 22
Across the street from a Toyota dealership on a well-developed stretch of Mission Gorge Road, Szechuan Mandarin is a great example of a time-forgotten restaurant that hasn't changed much in the past 30 years. Inside, it's 1982 forever with vinyl booths and fish tanks, the coolness of which is a contrast to the somewhat dowdy facade and exhaust fumes of the Mission Valley streets outside.
I opted to pass on the tiki-style cocktails because washing down lunch with a Scorpion Bowl is a seriously risky endeavor. Still, I can imagine that Mai Tais and Beachcombers would go great with the food. A pot of hot tea, on the other hand, was more in keeping with lunchtime procedures.
The food was exemplary of American Chinese cuisine. Hot and sour soup had an instantly familiar tang and velvety texture. A dish of Szechuan beef was mostly sweet and spicy flavors. Coated in the thick, red stir-fry sauce the heat of the dish was only moderate, despite the warning of the little chilli pepper on the menu. The "chef's shrimp" plate was broccoli and shrimp bound in a thick velouté; a kind of sauce made by thickening stock with starch.
Neither dish was truly exceptional, although the quality of produce seemed a bit beyond the norm. Lunch plates all cost between eight and ten dollars, so the Szechuan Mandarin experience was definitely affordable and a nice change from other types of quick lunches. I would say the charm of the place is mostly in its atmosphere and decor. The food isn't dramatically different from what might be available in a food court somewhere, but the old-school appearance and fish tanks give Szechuan Mandarin a leg up on the competition.
5855 Mission Gorge Road