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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Elemental Mandarin

January 27, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

For a long time, everybody went to the original Mandarin Deli, which was the essential sticky-table noodle shop in Chinatown, all giant bowls and gusts of garlic, little plates of jellyfish, wall signs, hungry crowds looking longingly at your chair.

There were unusual dumplings that turned out to be filled with soup when you bit into them (now off the menu), and great steamed fish dumplings, and tremendous pan-fried dumplings: the quintessence of fried food, crisp, flat and slightly charred where the dumplings were seared in the pan, soft and rounded underneath, stuffed with a mince of pork and scallion, seemingly greaseless but bursting with juice and garlic and the flavor of hot oil. It is difficult to imagine a meal at Mandarin Deli without at least one order.

Then branches and spinoffs seemed to open everywhere there was a substantial concentration of Chinese people. The newer places tended to be a bit grander, a bit spiffier, and the Chinatown location lost a little of its allure. But while the other branches of the chain may serve Mongolian beef and kung-pao shrimp, ice water and Japanese beer, the Chinatown restaurant remains almost Stalinist in its noodle-shop rigor--what you get here are noodles and dumplings, with maybe a few marinated cold dishes to nosh on while you wait: the essential Chinese deli menu, no surprises, and the food is primal and good. If you ask for rice, you may be directed to a restaurant at the other end of the mall. If two people split only one bowl of noodles between them, the waiters may scowl until you tack on an order of dumplings or a pressed-tofu salad or something.

And while there may be better noodle shops--especially certain Taiwanese-style delis and old-line Chinese-Korean restaurants where they still hand-throw the noodles--the Mandarin Deli remains the standard by which all Chinese noodle shops may be judged: It is astounding how many places fail to measure up. One of my wife's friends recently spent something like a solid month eating Chinese noodles at some of the most renowned places in New York without finding anything as good as what she used to take for granted here. Like the pastrami sandwich at Langer's and La Brea Bakery bread, the existence of Mandarin Deli is as decent a reason for staying in Los Angeles as anything you could name.

Seaweed salad, julienne strips of the crunchy sea plant as elusively briny as a Hog Island oyster, is slightly sweet and sour, shot through with an astonishing quantity of garlic, and it may be the best two bucks you could ever spend in a restaurant; a ginger-scented heap of crunchy, shredded jellyfish may resemble a pile of rubber bands, but is fine. Peanuts boiled with star anise and celery become something half-way on the continuum between nut and vegetable. Stewed tendon comes to the table still warm, a plate of slippery, luxurious food, heavily garlicked and shot through with the sharp taste of fresh scallion greens. Even the stewed beef tripe is good, chewy and fragrant of soy sauce and anise.

The key to ordering noodle dishes at Mandarin Deli is to specify the "handmade" noodles, which means you'll get wide, thick, square-cut noodles that are something like fettuccine on steroids. They taste much better in rich pork stock or in a searing chile-ed broth than the spaghetti-like noodles you would get instead. Handmade noodle soup with spicy chile: that's the ticket. "Ground flour soup noodle" involves tiny pasta nuggets, a little like Chinese spaetzle , in a sort of thick, egg-spiked broth; "square noodles" are little pasta hankies in more or less the same eggy soup. The cold noodles tossed with sesame paste, slivered cucumber and chicken are exemplary.

But the real reason to come to Chinatown may be the fish dumplings, airy, steamy things filled with a loose, fragrant mousse of whitefish and chopped greens that could serve as a $19 specialty at any high-priced "Pacific Rim" restaurant in town, except these are better.

* Mandarin Deli

727 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 623-6054. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Validated lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$12.

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