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[PDX] Mandarin House, "Authentic" Chinese?

sambamaster Jun 1, 2008 10:28 AM

Well, yes, it seems, or closer than other places in PDX, it seems, though I certainly have not been to all.
After reading a few postings here about this place, had to check it out to see if they, indeed, did something besides Chinese for American Taste style food. The answer, happily, is yes. But you really have to dig a bit to get it. The problem is, most of the good stuff, apparently, is on the untranslated Chinese menu, and the waiters I had were not terribly competent in helping with translations, but I won't get into that. We did end up with two really decent versions of Sichuan classics, and a couple of duds. The duds, by the way, were from the translated menu.

From what I've read, the chef there did some training in Sichuan, so there is some of that represented on the menu. Thank the Lawd! After being exposed to "real" Chinese for Chinese Taste, I just can't go back to even well prepared American Chinese....NYC, SF, LA, Seattle, even Austin TX now have great examples of this style of cooking and, now, at least to some extent, so does Portland.

Had to try the lauded Xiao Long Bao, the Shanghai soup dumpling. Just had some great ones in NYC two weeks ago and was hoping for something close that that juicy, spurting goodness. Unfortunately, that well was dry, at least last night...the dumplings were a bit leathery, and not a sign of the fabled soup inside. I'm sure the turnover on these is light here and these appeared to have a bit of shelf wear...not fresh at all, but the flavor was good, just no "burst-in-your-mouth" sexiness to the things. Maybe ask about freshness before ordering....?
Next we ordered the "Szechuan Noodles" which are really the classic Sichuan street food, Dan Dan Mian. Again, having just had them in NYC at Chengdu Heaven, and current fave food stall on the NYC boards, and having made a decent rendition at home last week, I was hoping for more than the mess of soft, over cooked noodles presented here. Aside from the gooey noodles, the spicing was not quite correct, it was good, just not what I've now had in about 10 different Sichuan places around the USA.... even so, I could recommend this dish IF they can promise not to over cook the noodles.

Now to the untranslated menu. Somehow, the waiter hit on one dish I absolutely love right off the bat when I'd requested some of the Sichuan dishes: Water Boiled Fish. However, I really wanted the beef version and that's what we got. It was really quite yummy, plenty of chile heat and Sichuan peppercorn numbingness...the broth was perfect, or almost...maybe a tad on the salty side. But the beef slices were tender, the napa cabbage tucked nicely under and, overall, a hit. One thing it featured that I'd never seen in this dish before was a generous handful of whole red chiles floating on top...normally, the dish is sprinkled with a heavy dusting of chile and sichuan peppercorn powder, and often a bit of cilantro...these were missing, but the dish was still very very good.

Then I'd asked if they had any of the traditional cold dishes of Sichuan, specifically "strange flavor chicken" or another cold chicken dish which features and amazing chile/garlic sauce adorning cold, poached chicken. The waiter seemed to describe such a dish and I tried to confirm with him twice that the chicken was indeed cold, and so on. "Yes," he said repeatedly. WEll, the dish that came out was not cold, and not the dish described. It was, however, another Sichuan specialty I love, Chongqing chicken...the famous dish with, often, 100 red chiles burying tasty morsels of fried chicken cubes. This version was a bit lighter on the chile count, but tasty nonetheless--it was covered with a yummy sprinkle of garlic bits fried with Sichuan peppercorns. Another winner. But don't ask me how to get them to understand what you want. Maybe just describe it, write down "Chongqing" or something. There is not translated name.

Anyway, I'm ready to delve deeper into their offerings, will take some translation cheat sheets I have to perhaps make more sense out of the Chinese menu. I'm sure there are some really great dishes buried therein.

If anyone else has further experience here, please post. And if someone who speaks Chinese could get a copy of the menu and translate, that would do us 'hounds a favor, and this restaurant as well.

A place certainly worth exploring.

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  1. SauceSupreme Jun 1, 2008 04:30 PM

    If you noted on the xiao long bao thread, I remarked that Asian Station still had the best XLB in town. As far as Mandarin House, I quite like their hand-pulled noodles, and I've been trying to work my way through that portion of the menu.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one giving this place a shot. It kinda gets lost in the shuffle, but you're absolutely right; it's a place certainly worth exploring.

    1. b
      Barry Foy Jun 1, 2008 05:42 PM

      A tangential note on xialongbao:
      The automatic identification of these little guys with the name "Shanghai soup dumpling" seems to have given people the idea that by definition they are full of "spurting goodness." I'm not quite sure how that happened; in my own experience (mostly in Taiwan), that's not the case. Dough, yes, meat filling yes, but I've eaten plenty of xiaolongbao that were moist and juicy without having nearly enough liquid to spurt--that's just not how everyone makes them. I'd advise focusing more on the taste and texture of the dough and filling, and less on how messy they are to eat.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Barry Foy
        sambamaster Jun 1, 2008 08:26 PM

        ok, was referring specifically to the Shanghai version which is a soup dumpling. maybe MH does not do the shanghai version. in any case they were not fresh, dough was leathery. pork was tasty. but they were not, if they were supposed to be, soup dumplings. i stand corrected. you are correct. soup dumpling is only one variety of XLB, but to many these days, this name does imply the soup dumpling version. sorry to mislead you. these were not great bao, whatever they were supposed to be. I'll get my soup dumplings in nyc. and stick with MH's water boiled beef.

        now, BF, if you know Chiinese, do many of us a favor and translate the Chinese-only menu at MH. thanks

        1. re: sambamaster
          SauceSupreme Jun 1, 2008 08:31 PM

          Here's my report from my most recent visit to Mandarin House.


          My reference point for XLB is Din Tai Fung and J&J, and Asian Station replicates that well-known style. I believe MH attempted to do it as well, but the lack of finesse shows.

      2. s
        sambamaster Jun 9, 2008 10:24 AM

        Returned last night for a second round. Overall great experience. Quizzed the waiter who may be the owner about the overcooked noodles. He said that was not correct, and that the noodles were hand made. I would not describe what I had as hand made, and they were horribly over cooked. Ordered them again last night but he must have forgotten since they never arrived. Fine, we had enough food. Will try those again in the future.
        We had a beef filled pancake which is on the translated menu, and it was fine, but not spectacular, a bit underflavored, but next time will request chile oil...will try again since the pastry was good, the filling just not overwhelming. Had the Chongqing chicken again and all agreed it was the best thing of the night.
        Saw another table eating Ma Po Tofu, a Sichuan classic, and ordered that. The offered dish was tasty, but lacking the normal bit of ground pork or beef....the flavor was a bit different from what I'm used to and so am wondering if they mixed up the order and delivered a different dish...maybe "homestyle tofu" or something. It was good regardless. Will clarify this in the future, see below.
        The last dish was twice cooked pork, Chinese style which was well done, though not utilizing the more common leek as the green vegetable. They used some form of cabbage and maybe a bit of green pepper, or chile. The dish was really quite good and it will be consumed again by yours truly. Well, not the exact same dish, obviously, but you get the idea.
        I asked the "presumptive" (oh so current in our diction) owner about the untranslated Chinese menu and suggested he should translate it for non-Chinese speakers and he said Americans don't like intestines and stomach. I said some do and that if the menu were translated, he would do much more business with non-Chinese since it contained so many interesting dishes. He asked me if I would help him translate, so sometime in the next week I'll go in and help as best I can (interesting proposition since I don't speak a word of Chinese). But I think we can get it to a point where the dishes are at least described in English. This will be a godsend since this place really might be the best non-American Taste Chinese in town.
        Walking out, my son and I noticed some photos of food posted on the wall of the stairs going down....low and behold an amazing array of dishes, most from that untranslated menu including Ants Climb a Tree (which my son wanted to order, but we couldn't find the appropriate characters on the Chinese menu) and DongPo pork, a long cooked chunk of pork, enough to feed 2-3 or 4 easily.... can't wait to try that...
        So, stay tuned, I'll post something when and if that menu makes it into Englich. ;- )

        one comment on this board....i see the same places discussed over and over and over and over and over and over. And few are truly what I'd classify as Chowhound places, or marginally at best. "Fine" dining is not always what 'hounding is all about. But call me a food luddite. Also, why are there so few "single topic" posts, but rather, the same question about "where to eat in 3 days in PDX, SEA" or whatever. The answers are always the same and little new ground is broken. Might be more informative if individual, new finds were discussed individually! More depth, easier to search, etc. Mr. Moderator, if needed, excise this last graph, not the entire post, por favor.

        1 Reply
        1. re: sambamaster
          SauceSupreme Jun 9, 2008 12:25 PM

          Well, the really indepth conversations happen outside of Chowhound on other boards. Typically the PDX threads here are started by tourists visiting. I mean, I'm excited about Mandarin House as you (I first brought it up in a PDX xiao long bao thread), but if a tourist is coming into town, I'd rather they work out of the old standards first.

          As for the locals-only places, I frequent TANUKI for upscale izakaya, PHO OREGON on 82nd, NGOC HAN BUN BO HUE for some great noodles, MY BROTHERS CRAWFISH in the shame shopping center for crawdads, HO SOON YI which is part of the same group of Seattle-based Korean restaurants, DANG'S THAI KITCHEN in Lake Oswego for the best "classic" Thai food, KARAM for their Lebanese food, especially stew, TAMBAYAN for Filipino food, and I was in Tigard yesterday checking out the new HMart.

          There's a Yucatecan taco truck up by Sugar Shack that serves panuchos, and there are a couple of places to get tortas. There's a decent one in Aloha next to Big Lots, but there's an effing great one on 82nd down past Johnson Creek (technically not even Portland anymore).

          The two places I'm itching to try out are Alba Osteria (for Piedmontese food) and Lucier (to see what shooting for a Michelin star in Portland looks like).

          I give the recommendations and always tell them, "you're only scratching the surface" and I'm okay with that. I do more of my in depth discussion over on portlandfood.org

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