Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
Most unappealing restaurant facade in Park West? Mandarin House would be a good candidate. The squat, windowless building has about as much charm as a Soviet monolith. This Chinese restaurant keeps company with finer-seeming places up and down the street, but it has long-standing durability that many restaurants could envy. 30+ years of posters and news clips just inside the door attest to that. Yellowed lighting and the absent windows give the inside an “always nighttime” feel that makes the bar start looking good, even at lunch.
It’s best to indulge that inclination and try one of the Tiki drinks that get their own page on the menu and have esoteric, almost Confuscian descriptions. “Navy grog” is “a burly man’s drink...often dared by women.” The “Mandarin special” is made with an “enchanted formula regarded as the true thirst quencher.” It goes without saying that Zombies will get you messed up on the quick, but I have to give it up to the Volcano, “a flaming, colorful drink for the daring couples.” I split one with my friend, only partly for the irony, and I felt decidedly tipsy by the time my half was done. The burning shot in the center is high proof rum. Extinguish the flame and mix the booze into the drink so that no alcohol is wasted.
An order of fried chicken livers was only $4.50 for a huge helping, but the soy-sauce drenched variety meats were almost too salty for human consumption. A little cup of chicken gold corn soup ($3.25) was just egg drop soup with chicken and corn in it. Since I like all those things, it was an acceptable first course, although the near-boiling heat came as something of a surprise.
The seafood “double happiness” ($14.95), which consisted of jumbo shrimp and scallops in a gluey velouté, had been augmented with snow peas and carrots but otherwise lacked anything to distinguish it. My friend described the dish as tasting “boiled,” which for a lot of people is the very definition of banality.
The “pungent chicken,” despite its funny name, was a much better dish. While it was little more than sweet and sour breaded chicken that swayed more towards sour, there was a lot of it and it had flavor. I confess to ordering based on the use of the word “pungent,” but I don’t think it was an apt descriptor for the mostly-sweet chicken. Still, it wasn’t a disappointment as was the double happiness.
Overall, Mandarin House doesn’t seem to do as a good a job as Hong Kong just up the street, at least in terms of food. The potent Tiki cocktails, on the other hand, are syrupy liquid joy that hearken back to a time before house-infused bitters and rare bourbons found their way into every restau and bar’s Boston shakers. There’s a good chance that the best way to visit Mandarin House is to order a flaming po-po platter ($10.95 to serve two) and keep the Fog Cutters and Mai Tais coming. Delivery is an option, but without the drinks I fail to see the point.
2604 5th Avenue
6765 La Jolla Boulevard
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