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Mandarin Chef Knows How to Please

Fresh, tasty fare, affordable prices help make it a favorite of locals.

If there’s such a thing as Chinese comfort food, they know how to dish it out at Mandarin Chef. Tucked away in the back row of Rancho San Diego Towne Center, there’s nothing cool or trendy about this Mandarin and Szechuan restaurant. It’s been around for 20 years, our waitress told us as she pointed out a few regulars on a Saturday night.

The vibe is very much ’80s, with pink walls, booths and upholstery. Unlike a lot of restaurants we’ve reviewed lately, my dining companion and I could actually have a pleasant conversation because there was no background music. Two large flat-screen TVs were tuned to Major League Baseball but with the sound off. It’s a deceivingly large place but wasn’t full the night we dined. Reservations are accepted and families with kids are welcomed.

But we were there for the food. The first appetizer we had was the cream cheese fried wontons. For $5.99, you get 10 puffy, crispy wontons that don’t look like they came out of a cookie cutter as you’d find at the Asian chain restaurants. They didn’t taste like them either, stuffed with bits of onion that contrasted beautifully with the smooth cream cheese. The eggrolls (four for $4.99) were done just right, with a thin, crispy, nongreasy shell filled with fresh-tasting vegetables.

I wanted an entrée that was representative of the restaurant’s fare, so I chose the Mandarin Special ($11.99). It arrived on a plate laden with plump, sweet shrimp, chicken, roast pork, scallions, mushrooms, water chestnuts and snow peas, all topped with the “Chef’s Special Sauce,” probably the same broth-and-cornstarch glaze you get at most Chinese places. Everything was fresh and delicious, especially the shrimp. And there was plenty of it—enough for a leftover lunch the next day.

My companion, who avoids fried food, asked if she could have something steamed, like chicken and broccoli ($7.99). The kitchen obliged and delivered with juicy chunks of chicken and tender broccoli.

The total for all of the above was $34.50, including a pot of free, refillable tea and two each of bakery-quality fortune and almond cookies. Service was attentive, with the black-and-white dressed staff personable and helpful. About the only thing we found lacking was low-sodium soy sauce. We asked for some, but the waitress said they didn’t offer it.

Overall, Mandarin Chef offered such fine food and value that it replaces Mandarin House in Bankers Hill as our favorite Chinese restaurant. We want to try their Sunday buffet brunch, which offers 20 entrees for just $10.99 per adult, $6.95 per child. A friend who lives in Rancho San Diego later told me to be sure to try the pot stickers. I will, my friend. I certainly will.

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