By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
A hexagonal aquarium in the reception area coupled with an interior color scheme of teal and salmon bisque are your first clues that Szechuan Mandarin dates back to when CNN first launched and when Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” hit the Billboard charts.
The restaurant opened in 1980 as an alternative to other Chinese kitchens specializing mostly in Cantonese-style food. Here, consumers encountered spicier fare inherent to China’s Sichuan province as well as fruity sauces born from the country’s Mandarin culture.
Little has changed in terms of the décor and menu. The dining room tables are still draped in starched, white linens. An ornate relief plaque showing a Chinese port scene spans one of the dining room walls. And based on my sporadic visits over two decades, food portions remain generous.
About four years ago, the restaurant endured a fire that was confined to the kitchen. It closed for several months and reopened as one of the few remaining old-school Chinese restaurants in metro San Diego. (The cherished Mandarin House in Bankers Hill had shuttered shortly before the fire, and before that, China Camp on Pacific Highway had gone poof.)
Hong Kong Restaurant in Hillcrest and Chop Suey Peking Restaurant in North Park are icons as well, but they’re not necessarily in the same culinary league as Szechuan Mandarin because they incorporate other styles of Chinese cuisine into their menus.
Only here anymore can I find kung pao in the reddish version I prefer. In other Chinese restaurants the sauce is brown and lacks the dramatic interplay of hot chili paste and sugar. In my most recent visit, a long-time server explained the recipe also contains hoisin sauce, a viscous chili-based condiment that imparts depth of flavor and a dark-red hue to whatever protein you choose (chicken, beef, fish, shrimp or tofu). He assured no food coloring is involved.
Visiting as a famished twosome, we were thrilled by the number of steamed pork dumplings that came in a single order from the appetizer list. In the past, it was always eight. This time it was 10. Not bad for $7.50. Drizzled in spicy chili oil, their skins were supple and the pale ground pork inside offered wisps of ginger.
The hot and sour soup is remarkably consistent, always a little more sour than peppery, and with the same hearty measure of bamboo shoots and tofu.
As my companion became woozy over a couple of zombies — made with two types of rum, triple sec and pineapple juice — our table gave way to family-style servings of moo shu pork and kung pao chicken. There was plenty of rice as well, although the fried version tasted hardly any different than the steamed. It was sorely lacking the classic additions of peas, chopped carrots and fried egg.
In earlier days, moo shu pork came with a bit of tableside activity, whereby the server would fold the minced pork and cabbage into paper-thin pancakes right before your eyes. That might have been the case had we not answered “no” when our waitress politely asked if we minded the wraps be made in the kitchen. With today’s lack of competition, I’m guessing it’s one of those frills the establishment doesn’t mind axing.
The entree nonetheless came with a bonus bowl of the tasty pork-cabbage mixture on the side — the excess amount that all five pancakes couldn’t accommodate.
My craving for kung pao chicken was grandly sated by a dish containing more poultry than peanuts, and with cubed water chestnuts strewn throughout for an ideal crunch. The reddish sauce, both sweet and piquant, performed its usual magic on the ingredients. Best of all, the plate yielded enough leftovers for lunch the next day.
If you prefer entrees with sweeter overtones, look no further than the Mandarin dishes such as tangerine scallops, crispy orange beef, and pork with plum sauce.
But don’t fear the Sichuan-style dishes, most of which are printed in red to indicate they contain chili peppers. You won’t need a fire hose to quell the burn. Everything I’ve tried over the years has been safely spiced, and as warmly familiar as the feel-good message waiting inside your fortune cookie.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.