This long-established and well-respected Mira Mesa Mall restaurant serves one of those rare menus that transcends typical Chinese lists of sweet 'n sour, kung poa and moo shu preparations. The Mandarin Garden menu includes Chinese dishes that, although regarded as typical in their homeland, rarely are offered here.
It would be helpful if the menu sequestered these under some sort of specials heading, but, as things are, it is necessary to search to find the mentions for "lion's head" (savory meat balls); "ants climbing the tree" (spicy minced pork tumbled with delicate noodles); fried pork chops with seasoned salt; eel in brown sauce and other off-the-beaten-track preparations.
The menu makes mundane mentions, to be sure, including egg rolls unworthy of the place, a very good, very pungent sour hot soup, assorted chow meins and even, rather surprisingly, chop suey. But the finer offerings also begin right at the top of the list, in the appetizer department.
Among these are a mixed plate of Chinese-style smoked fish and wine-marinated chicken; a more deeply flavored fowl called "wonderful chicken;" deliciously refreshing jellyfish (which seem like nothing so much as cold, chewy noodles); and the intriguing vegetable rolls, or crepe-like squares of tofu skin stuffed with tree ear mushrooms and vegetables and doused with a sweet but pungent soy sauce.
The cold beef with five spice flavor has mixed appeal. The thin slices, by design, have a chewy, almost tough texture, while the flavor seems oddly like that of American pot roast. This is one of those plates that in Chinese cookery belongs to the "wine-accompanying dish" category, a term that means the same as our "cocktail snack."
The soup selection runs to glorious length and includes Chinese greens or salted pork, both with bean curd, and the sar wor soup of assorted meats with vermicelli. There are won ton and sizzling rice soups, of course, but also broths enriched and flavored with seaweed, abalone and the highly prized shark's fin.
Prawns served in the shell are a Beijing specialty, but require the knowledge of how to eat them, a talent acquired only with patience. Mandarin Garden serves these with both hot sauce and the more delicate brown sauce.
Altogether more accessible are the sauteed shrimp with chili sauce, which are sweet and not too hot.
Skip the crab with straw mushrooms, usually a great dish, but here made with imitation crab. The menu makes recompense for this slip by offering sauteed sea cucumber (a beast, not a veggie), abalone with black mushrooms and the day's fresh fish, cooked whole in any of several styles.
Peking duck is joined by the less common tea-smoked duck and by a roasted bird dressed with scallions and black mushrooms. The sliced chicken in hot sauce has a certain appeal, but is chunked rather than sliced, which makes a definite difference. Among beef dishes, the stir-fry with Chinese greens included much excellent, tender meat, a fine variety of vegetables and a delicious seasoning of fresh ginger.
The pork with preserved vegetables is not for amateurs, since it is salty, pungent and oily, but it also has a sort of musky quality that is most pleasing. Other highlights on this long, complicated menu include braised eggplant in hot sauce, bean curd in brown sauce, spicy tang tang noodles and the savory cha chiang noodles.
8242 Mira Mesa Blvd., in Mira Mesa Mall
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees from $4.45 to $11.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $40. Credit cards accepted.