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RESTAURANT REVIEW / MANDARIN HOUSE : Blessings and Curses : Get detailed descriptions from a waiter, and choose carefully from among 123 mostly pleasing items on the menu.


It was a rainy weeknight when the long, yellow school bus pulled up outside Mandarin House, releasing a steady stream of blue-blazered students from Ojai's Villanova Prep. Happily for the students and sadly for the rest of the world, they took the place over. If you had steamed dumplings on your mind, takeout was the only option.

Mandarin House enjoys regional casting as your basic Trusty Representative Chinese Restaurant. So it is not surprising that Villanovans out to mark the Chinese New Year would come here, to a handsome but unassuming storefront in the Target shopping center in Ventura.

The trappings are familiar enough: red vinyl booths, tables with red upholstered chairs and the ubiquitous red vinyl menu (with gold tassel). Of course, there are a mere 123 things to choose from, from severe and sublime vegetable-bean curd soup and crispy spiced shrimp to the lowly and ponderous chicken chow mein.

This is the blessing and curse of the place, for few kitchens can do so many things well, much less bring freshness and imagination to so many styles of a mammoth nation's cuisine. The task, then, in having a successful meal at Mandarin House is to engage the waiter on detailed food descriptions and to order carefully, specifically.

The good news is that, besides serving up some very good food, the Mandarin House staff--from the manager who seats you to the uniformly solicitous waiters--is out to please. Ask and you shall get. If you return a few times, you might even be asked to pose for a snapshot and thus join the faithful who are tacked to the front wall, each image an icon of approval.

Among appetizers, avoid the Chinese chicken salad ($2.50), a cold, listless combination of shredded iceberg lettuce and flavorless chicken bits; and also the paper-wrapped chicken ($3.25), whose aluminum foil wrappers leave the meat within sodden and sour.

Go instead to the excellent vegetable and bean curd soup ($3.50), a clear and sparkling lightly spiced broth darkened by fresh spinach and bolstered by cubes of bean curd (note: this dish is especially good when ordered extra spicy, which seems to amplify individual flavors). Or try the hot and sour soup ($3.50), a worthy, abundant, incendiary rendition of the classic. Sadly, though, crab meat and corn soup ($4.25), an original opportunity, is an opaque, viscous brew, lost entirely to thickening agents and tired ingredients.

Teriyaki beef sticks ($4.25) couldn't be better: tender, charred, rare, lightly marinated and free of cloying sauces. And then, the steamed dumplings ($4.50), which as an appetizer are really a meal in themselves: six plump pillows, filled with ground meat and sweet vegetables, and ready for saucing in soy, rice vinegar and explosive chili oil. This is comfort food of the first order.

In all the main dishes sampled, two are memorable for their excellence. House special chicken ($6.95), the better of the two by a hair, is nothing less than opulent: a huge mound of sliced white-meat chicken sauteed with Italian squash and carrots in a thin but intensely flavored brown, hot sauce. This dish carries with it all the possibility of fine wok cooking: fresh ingredients, quick-sauteeing under high heat to sear and retain flavor, and saucing that draws from the flavors of the ingredients. The price for this dish is anomalously low.

Nearing the pinnacle is something billed as a "Kitchen Specialty" and called, simply enough, spicy jumbo shrimp ($10.95). This is the real thing, again: whole shrimp (they were somewhat less than jumbo, actually, though gratifyingly numerous) lightly battered and quick-fried in highly spiced oil, shells on. The result is crisp, fiery, seemingly oil-free, succulent within. The shrimp arrive atop a bed of shredded lettuce, wan to the eye but the perfect cool foil in the mouth. The key to this dish, clearly, is in keeping the shells on the shrimp--in the cooking, which is so hot as to weaken the shells sufficiently for eating, and in the eating, which provides for crunch and a nut-like dimension in the flavor.

Kung Pao squid ($8.50), sampled twice, is a consistent winner, generous in its cross-hatched steaks from the squid's body tube and sauced lightly and pungently, brightened by the sting of chili.

Scallops with garlic sauce ($9.95), however, arrived adrift in a less-than-garlicky goo and were lost to a profusion of bleak water chestnuts. The usual crowd-pleasing spicy chicken ($6.50), diced cubes of white and dark meat tossed simply with chili paste and vegetables, was stale and gristly in the meat and overwhelmed, again, by water chestnuts--a particularly incongruous showing when sampled alongside the stunning house special chicken.

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