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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Encinitas' Mandarin No Longer Towers Over Chinese Cuisine

December 20, 1990|DAVID NELSON

At its opening nearly 10 years ago, Mandarin Tower in Encinitas was exceptional, thanks to an energetic management and to the faithful renderings of classic dishes by a Peking - born and -trained chef. But the energy has waned: While the cooking and service today are adequate, it no longer serves a compelling Chinese cuisine.

The restaurant lists pot stickers on the menu page devoted to house specialties, but the dish is merely average. Other specialties are more notable. The panda pork, presented on a bed of crushed, deep-fried noodles, has a pleasantly chewy texture and a subtle flavor that mingles sweet and spicy undertones. The yu-shiang shrimp, while very much a standard dish, also is well done, and the shrimp take well to the Szechuan treatment that again mingles a bit of sweetness with an underlying but far from overpowering heat.

The crispy chicken in hot garlic sauce, highly touted by the restaurant as a special among specials, was not a particularly happy dish, since the chunks of chicken lacked crispness and had a rewarmed quality; what was likeable was the small garden of vegetables in pungent brown sauce that garnished the bites of bird.

The appetizer list is so perfunctory that the restaurant seems to be telling its guests that it knows what they want, and that they want egg rolls, crisped won ton or fried jumbo shrimp. There is the alternative of the dreaded " pu-pu platter" (the name probably originated at one of those pseudo-Polynesian restaurants that flourished in the 1960s), which includes tastes of all of these as well as such tidbits as skewered beef, all to be heated over the open flame that burns bluish-orange in the center of the platter.

There is a greater range of options among the soups, although, once again, the selection sticks to the basics. The sour-hot soup is pungent, somewhat hot and respectable, while the very Cantonese Imperial soup includes a more than generous amount of minced shrimp among the water chestnuts and vegetables stirred into an egg white-thickened broth.

The selection of standard entrees again seems to take the point of view that guests have relatively narrow tastes. There are sweet-sour dishes in the expected manifestations (chicken, pork and shrimp); moo shu beef and pork; assorted kung pao offerings and, in an interesting return to the Chinese menus of other days, a foo young made with barbecued pork.

Among the poultry choices is a good sliced chicken with vegetables that, while mild, also is delicate, an important distinction. Also on the positive side is the lengthy list of seafood dishes, which extends beyond the usual shrimp with cashews to Mandarin-style lobster and the whole fish of the day, served sweet-and-sour or braised in hot sauce.

MANDARIN TOWER 625 Encinitas Blvd.

Encinitas

Calls: 942-1959

Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly

Cost: Entrees $5 to $15.95. Dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $40

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