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Asian American Classics : Who needs innovative? Mandarin King and Royal Thai serve reliable, crowd-pleasing fare.

October 15, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The sign in the restaurant says no MSG, but it doesn't say anything about Kenny G.

We are in Mandarin King, a bright, nondescript Chinese restaurant with a loyal, largely local clientele. The mellow stylings of Kenny G play almost constantly in the background. But the Laguna Beach restaurant's good food and friendly service is an antidote for almost anything.

Laguna is home to trendy Asian restaurants such as Five Feet and Thai Brothers, which makes Mandarin King's appeal seem all the more lasting. This is one of the few places on this stretch of PCH for a good plate of steamed dumplings, or a comforting bowl of hot and sour soup. It is also one of the city's more reasonably priced places to eat, which explains why it has survived 15 years.

No one comes to Mandarin King, however, for atmosphere or innovative cooking. The boxy restaurant is furnished with pink vinyl booths, and the bilingual waitresses wear pink blouses to match. I'd advise only a cursory nibble from the complimentary bowl of fried noodles and side dish of crisped rice noodle salad, brought to you soon after being seated. Both are insipid, and neither does justice to the good cooking to follow.

This is primarily a Mandarin and Sichuan restaurant, and the heavier, spicier dishes are the most dependable. Hearty pot stickers with a dense pork and beef filling are either steamed or fried. Hot and sour soup is a mild version made without the usual dose of rice vinegar and with very little pepper, but delicious anyway.

One of the restaurant's best dishes is the Hunan specialty orange peel chicken. This version is a lightly breaded stir-fry of chicken pieces redolent of bittersweet orange. Another dish not to miss is Sichuan shrimp, large prawns in a spirited sauce made with seared fagara peppers, bamboo shoots, julienne carrot and diced celery.

The northern Chinese are great pork eaters. House special pork uses a tad too much cornstarch to dredge the meat, but the sauce, a light, sweet soy and rice wine sauce flecked with white pepper, is unusually complex, wonderful on steamed rice. The famous dish twice-cooked pork is also a Hunan favorite. The pork is steamed and then pan-fried with cabbage, black mushrooms, green onions and a serious snootful of minced garlic.

Vegetable dishes such as hot braised bean curd or broccoli with oyster sauce round out a meal nicely, though I should mention that the latter is made with American broccoli, not the slightly bitter and more intensely flavored Chinese variety. If you crave the authentic stuff, you've come to the wrong neighborhood, but this, at least, is one neighborhood Chinese joint that rocks.

Mandarin King is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.75 to $9.75. Main dishes are $5.75 to $9.95.

*

Meanwhile, Thai food is going strong in Newport Beach in an equally Americanized but considerably more elegant restaurant.

Royal Thai Cuisine seems to have the formula down. Nothing is searingly hot or made with overly exotic ingredients, as might be the case in a more ethnic Thai restaurant. Yet this place is always busy.

It's pretty, with a beamed ceiling, white tablecloths, oil paintings of Thai orchids and an abundance of leafy tropical plants. Outside the front door is the restaurant's trademark teak elephant, a 5-foot carving stolen and recovered a few years back. Service is performed by a competent team of young Thais sporting royal purple uniforms.

Thai food is hot, sweet and fragrant, and any Thai menu worth its salt has a nice selection of finger foods to whet the appetite. Katoang thong are ethereally crisp pastry shells, about the size of fancy chocolates, filled with curried chicken, onion and spiced potato. The northeast Thai dish larb is an addictive melange of minced chicken, rice powder, lime juice, chiles and fresh mint. Ask for a plate of raw cabbage leaves and eat it burrito style, like the Thais do.

The menu has several distinctive salads, which combine ingredients such as grilled meats and cooked noodles with raw, marinated vegetables. One of the best choices is yum nuah, tender, beautifully char-grilled strips of beef served on a lime-juice-spiked bed of cucumbers and lettuce.

Another intriguing option is som tam, a country-style salad made with julienne green papaya, cabbage and lots of minced red chile. It's reasonably hot, but tame when compared with the som tam you can eat on the street in Bangkok, which usually comes laced with dried shrimp and salted crab.

The two most popular Thai dishes in America are gai yang, Thai barbecued chicken, and pad Thai, a flat rice noodle dish. Here, the report card is mixed. Royal Thai's pad Thai is excellent, a huge mound of orange-colored noodles sauteed with just the right amount of chicken, cooked egg and green onions, and garnished with crushed peanuts and fresh bean sprouts.

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