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Wow! Our First Excellent Lunch Buffet!: Mandarin in Reading, just off 128

For awhile now, Ferrari328 has been CH posting some serious lunch hounding in the area north of boston.. He briefly mentioned Mandarin Reading in a recent post and today we went to try it, just off 128 and across from REI (about 10 min. from the 93/128 intersection.)

What a huge surprise. The lunch buffet is 11-2 wkdays for $12 and they are friendly and accomodating with late visitors. We arrived at 1:30 and none of the items were sold out and none had been suffering too long under heat lamps. They all tasted fresh and crunchy, not too sweet or salty, and no MSG that I could discern. Chefs come from Fuju and Hong Kong.

Excellent apps:

Tempura- really good and fresh and crispy. Not a proper light/shattering panko crust but still excallent,but still- fried nicely, and crisp. Many different vegetables incl. kabocha squash ; v good tempura dipping sauce

Crab Rangoon- excellent flavor, good amount of filling; fry oil clean

Peking Ravioli - larger than other commercial ones w/ a lot more filling of flavorful

march chopped pork; seemed house made to me. Steamed and fried, w/ good brown crust.

Pork and Shrimp Shumai- excellent filling

Section of 8 or so different dipping sauces including a 'ginger sauce' which seemed to be soy, vinegar, ginger (excellent w/ the ravs.)

Really Good:

Beef with Leeks- good quality tender beef, well balanced flavors

General Gau's- not cloyingly sweet

Baby Bok Choy- so tender and crisp

Not good:

lo mein -good flavor but overcooked

hot and sour soup- major yeccch

teriyaki chicken skewers- tough/dry, sweet

many diff maki- very pretty and varied, but not much flavor ,and rice not right at all

-there were probably 4 apps and 6-8 entrees that I did not have.

- I would never have tried the ice cream because I am such an ice cream snob (Toscanini's , Mixx, JPLicks and Haagen dasz(sp) for me)but it was brought to us- coconut, and chocolate -and I am really curious what brand it is because it was very good,the choc, esp, because it had a deep flavor and wasn't too sweet.

The octagonal room was very attractive and colorful and light filled. Plenty of helpful staff around.

I'm curious what CHs think about buffet tips- 20% of $24 (2 of us)just seemed too little.

Anyway, after the pretty dreadful dreck last week at Tulip jn Stoneham, Mandarin was 1,000 times better and we plan to return often. We overheard another couple tell the waitress that they heard about it on TV Diner. Btw, there are 3 other suburban Mandarin locations and they also own Bamboo, w/ 3 locations.

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  1. My daughter really loves the Mandarin Reading buffet so we've gone a lot. She's particularly a fan of their egg drop soup, peking ravioli, shu mai, lo mein and mixed sauteed vegetables but she's 6, so take her recommendations for what they're worth :)

    I like the little bowls of kimchi, the whole shrimp dry fried with celery, the sushi (they only put out a few pieces so you have to get it just as it goes out), and occasionally they have braised greens in oyster sauce. When I'm feeling indulgent I'll get the General Gau's, crab rangoon. I actually like their hot and sour soup.

    They have never brought me ice cream, but it's always on the buffet and I do like their green tea ice cream very much. They always offer two flavors and one is usually a conventional flavor like vanilla or chocolate and one is more interesting like green tea, coconut or red bean.

    I've gotten mired into too many buffet tipping discussions on the Not About Food board but I will say that the service at Mandarin Reading is a step higher than typical buffet service. They are prompt with drinks and soup and quickly remove dirty plates, and are always friendly and pleasant, and I try to compensate accordingly.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Chris VR

      Hi OC, Meletharb is from Barthlelomew.. Bart was actually a nice man, not a whacko, passed away recently but lived in our building and used to make ice cream parties for the kids in the building periodically. His son now runs it.. Mandarin Reading used to be our hang out for yrs but when the wonderful woman who ran it left, we found it hit and miss after that, but maybe we will give it a new try.. Our new Chinese spot for quite a while has now been Bamboo Garden in Wakefield but no one here hardly goes cuz it is the most unsexy place around, but its a small family run place with the freshest most consistent (one guy doing the cooking forever) Chinese we have found.. And the cheapest restaurant you will ever find, ever.. Nothing fancy at all but nearly always good. Our standbys Giant thick egg fu yungs with a non MSG peanutty gravy, not the shiny gloppy stuff that's at Man.Reading and everywhere else, and salmon with rice and veggies. typically summer squash, zucchini, broc, bok, onion, carrots, button shrooms. baby corrn, in a not too starchy mildly garlic/sesame oil flavored white sauce on a giant platter with rice (which unfortunately is not jasmine anymore, but they do have brown and the white is ok for white) for 7 bucks at dinner, less at lunch and add a buck for each app with it. Crab rangoons very good. You can sub lo mein for a buck for rice. The shrimp that is battered, kind of like a general gau sauce, is huge and tender. The salmon is adequate for the price, not gourmet but suits us okay.. Chow foon is tender too and not all stuck together like a lot of others. I do find Mand Reading a good place to bring out of town company for a leisurely lunch and they are usually very happy with it. BTW, OC, love your presence on this board but judging by the clear and literal style of your name here, I am guessing that you won't be content until Meletharb changes their name to "The Nice Homemade Ice Cream Shop in Wakefield" ! I just cant fathom how you tolerate "Haagen Dazs", a fake danish name from New Jersey that you cant even spell:) and while 'Toscanini" makes great ice cream, it doesn't make me think icecream any more than Meletharb..

      1. re: chompie

        Def must try that ice cream; thx.

        The Bamboo Garden- they don't have a buffet, right? those are ala carte dishes you like? i really love a good chow fun. I think Beef and Broccoli chow fun might have been the first dish I ever had in Chinatown (at Bo Shek back in 1971!)

        1. re: opinionatedchef

          OC, yes, it is not a buffet. Its funny, when I first saw "good chow fun" , I thought, 'isn't that what we have here on CH? then I realized it was fun, as in foon..lol. BTW, I meant to write Bamboo House, not Bamboo Garden.. Its the one in the plaza with Morena off North Ave. Just realize, if you go it is not anything like Phuket, not creative or decored, just plain ol cheap, fresh well cooked and plated standard Amer. Chinese run by a family.

            1. re: opinionatedchef

              we ended up at ManDan for dinner tonite, no buffet and just had a couple of basics but the flavors were pretty much very good. I just had 3 little peeves...our maki roll was served on a very hot plate.. Has anyone ever had sushi served on a hot plate?? I could smell it 'cooking' as it was delivered, and the lo mein had a lot of Chinese celery in it, which I have never eaten in all my years of eating and did not like.. too strong a flavor for standard shrimp lo mein.. and the light overhead was broken and flashed every 4 seconds.. other than that it was good..

        2. re: chompie

          You can't go to Bamboo House without getting the Chao Shou Wonton which is their version of Suan La Chow Show. Not as good as Mary Chung's, but their homemade dumplings in the dish are really good (if you go in the afternoon you can see them sitting at the tables making dumplings), the sauce is just not as spicy as MC's, more on the sweeter side.

      2. Next time you are in the Wakefield area, you should try Meletharb's Ice Cream. It's a hidden gem with delicious ice cream. There hot fudge is also excellent. Some of my favorite ice cream flavors include coconut almond chip, coffee caramel cup, sweet cream and strawberry. The white pistachio varies between amazing and fine.

        7 Replies
        1. re: beetlebug

          Try the baklava ice cream there..it is amazing !!

          1. re: tlpzza

            Yes! Never had a bad flavor at Meletharb but the baklava is particularly great.

          2. re: beetlebug

            well bb, if that name isn't the most unusual i will EVER see, in my life, with the words Ice Cream after it..... Who knew?

            1. re: opinionatedchef

              Meletharb's has been an institution for many years; surprised some people think of it as a hidden gem or don't know it!

              1. re: Karl S

                I've gone to Meletharb's for years. I think of it as a hidden gem because most people, outside of Wakefield residents haven't heard of it. Plus, I've always found it to be an odd location.

            2. re: beetlebug

              try the molasses gingersnap; and they make real whipped cream for sundaes

              1. re: beetlebug

                Hey, beetle, I'm a Meletharb fan as well. I was anxious to try the hot fudge, but when I asked the counter girl if it was made in-house, she said no. I had visions of generic Friendly's-type sauce. It's good to hear that it is tasty. Maybe I'll brave it next time.

              2. I am always perplexed when it comes time to pay the bill and add tip at a buffet. If the service is attentive I tend to tip 15% at buffets. If the server goes out of his or her way or my kids make a mess (I will do my best to clean on my own first) I will sometimes do 20%. opinionatedchef, are you saying the restaurant added in 20%?

                7 Replies
                1. re: Gordough

                  nonono. WE want to do at least 20% but it seems too little. i mean, surely those waitpeople make close to nothing.

                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                    Fair enough but what are you paying for if all you do is tell the server you are having the buffet and you drink water? I understand there is some work involved in clearing plates and filling water glasses but is 15% really not enough absent some sort of outstanding above and beyond service? To each his own but I certainly think a $5 tip for a $24 lunch meal where you get your own food is more than sufficient.

                  2. re: Gordough

                    The US customary standard tip for buffet service is 10%; hasn't changed. You are free to tip more if you wish or if you made a lot of work for the servers.

                    1. re: Karl S

                      But in buffet places, don't the tips get shared by servers and cooks, as in many non-buffet places? I ask this completely naively...We almost always leave 20% no matter even if service hasn't been great, because why should the kitchen suffer for something out of their control?

                      1. re: digga

                        The general rule comes from the idea that they are not normally doing the same level of service as full-service. In any event, the US customary baseline for buffet tipping is still 10%, and you are free to leave as much more as you wish, which will primarily compensate for the many people who leave no tip for buffet service.

                        1. re: digga

                          digga, that's so interesting- i've so often thought the opposite- what if our food took forever to arrive because of the kitchen and not the server? (re: should i tip less or not)
                          funny, eh?!

                          1. re: opinionatedchef

                            No, not so funny when anything less than 20% on a $24 bill is less than $5. People are dependent on tips. Judging from the frequency with which you and your beloved eat out, I have a feeling that won't make or break you. But it might the person who is cooking/serving your food.

                    2. Thanks OC. I have been looking for some good Chinese buffet places. Some place that is not greasy.

                      1. I find it to be just "ok" americanized chinese.. The best lunch buffet i have had in this area is on Sunday only at the Lotus Flower in Framingham. It is a dimsum/regular buffet and is very good.

                        1. Good to hear about the buffet, oc. I've only eaten off the menu, and have enjoyed most of what I've had. My favorites have been the yeun/yang spicy beef on a bed of string beans (maybe too spicy for your taste?), the beef with asparagus and the chicken with eggplant.

                          I also enjoyed the Peking Duck,(I've only had it three or four times, so take that into account) but found the table-side assembly by the server a bit intrusive so would ask to do it myself next time.

                          The shao mai are pretty good. I find the Peking ravioli a bit bready, but otherwise tasty.

                          (I'll also be curious as to your thoughts on Meletharb if you make it there.)

                          11 Replies
                          1. re: bear

                            thx bear, i think i we'll prob go once a wk, so i'll start calling and asking what entrees are on the buffet, looking for those you rec'd. i don't recall having seen chicken w/ eggplant on any chinese menu, so that particularly draws me! I have a THING for eggplant.

                            the pek ravs- by 'bready', do you mean the wrappers were too thick for you? because the filling (i did my best CH dissecting job!) had no bread.

                            forgive me, but meletharb- that is just the ODDest name; i'm dying to know where it comes from. Do you think it might be middle eastern? (i'm not used to seeing 'arb' at the end of any name)...... but then i do know 'goldfarb' as a last name..............Well, off to google!

                            add: google got me nowhere w/ meletharb. then it came to me that maybe's it's a conjunction of 2 names.............

                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                              I am not sure about Mandarin but i have gone to Bamboo randomly over the past 10 years or so (maybe once a year) and the buffet always is exactly the same each time, years later...
                              You noted the hot and sour was bleh.. Was it a pinkish color with tons of sesame oil on top and an almost tomatoey tinge to it?? That is how bamboo makes it..

                              1. re: hargau

                                Mandarin's buffet does change around, definitely not exactly the same every time.

                                Their soup is a pinkish color but I don't recall sesame oil on topic and it doesn't taste tomatoey to me.

                                1. re: Chris VR

                                  yes, chris, your experience= mine on that awful soup. i could not i.d. the flavor/component that made it ghastly but my face must have been pretty funny/no words needed.

                              2. re: opinionatedchef

                                meletharb is some kind of reverse combo of the names of the father and son who own the shop;
                                Bartholomew is part of the puzzle

                                1. re: gracenote

                                  whew!thank you! as i recently appreciated another CH saying recently, "I can stop drinking now"!!

                                  p.s. but what whacko would ever imagine that to be a good name? certainly no Marketing majors here. (the obstreperous might say 'that name helps you remember them', but i would counter 'if they had a GOOD name, they would not remain so 'hidden' ")ymmv

                              3. re: bear

                                Edit my post above to say I've only had Peking Duck three or four times in my life and only once at Mandarin, so I don't have good comparison and therefore am not a good critic. (I'm dying to try China King in Chinatown.)

                                oc, I did mean the wrapper on the ravioli. That was a couple of years ago, though, since i've ordered the shao mai since. I should give them another shot.

                                1. re: bear

                                  I agree, the wrapper on the ravioli is pretty thick.

                                  1. re: bear

                                    very very meaty, packed solid; most filling i've ever had in one. just sayin'!

                                    1. re: opinionatedchef

                                      I was talking about the wrapper. I remember enjoying the filling, but my favorite rav's have a more delicate casing. I'll give them another try next time I'm there.

                                      1. re: bear

                                        We recently met family at Bamboo in Mildord. Yueng Yang beef was very good, as was the kung pao chicken.

                                        The wrapper on the Peking ravioli was thinner than I remembered. They were delicious and I would happily order them again.

                                2. Thanks OC for the tip about the ice cream. I never even try it since I assume it's the cheapest they can find.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Ferrari328

                                    wow, ferrari, if i have done you even one service, i am honored!
                                    (and we can both thank the exceptionally nice waitress for that discovery!)

                                  2. Totally agree ,,, I am a regular. The best dish is the eggplant with tofu...silky, rich flavor....and the beef dishes are always good. I add that hot chili pepper to most of it. big yums.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: ipsofatso

                                      ooh, that eggplnt tofu dish is a great tip; thk you!

                                    2. you know 'what they say' about the second time......

                                      We went yesterday and had a few more misses, but still some good things.

                                      Start w/ dessert, right?! The mngr told me that they get their ice cream from 2 vendors- Richardson's and some unknown 'food service wholesaler'. The Wild Blueberry was really good but the Green Tea was bogus. Good fake (the color) but green tea flavor there was not.

                                      While we arrived at 1:30 like we did before (they close the buffet at 2 pm +/- depending on diner numbers) the oil was def overworked so the fried items tasted not as great as before. (We go at that time to avoid the noisy crowd, but maybe we should try 1 or 1:15? )

                                      The veg dish was a disappointing broccoli/carrot/etc melange . But there was a really great wok charred chicken dish that had such a distinct smoky flavor (like the wok charred chicken udon dish at Myers+Chang).

                                      Julie, the really sweet helpful waitress, was there again, helping bring up our multiple plates to the sunny room up the stairs. (We like to keep the fried and dumpling things w/ little sauce bowls, on a separate plate from the entrees.) Btw, the mngr explained to me that buffet tips are not shared there; your tip goes to your waitperson. (If there's a large private group /party, then the tips are shared.)

                                      Of course we'll be going back and learning more as we go. Don't forget to give us the official CH nannu nannu sign if you're there too :-}

                                      2 Replies
                                        1. re: Prav

                                          Hey, prav, we'll be in the sunny room up the stairs off the buffet. and i'm not of the thin persuasion. And, particularly if i've seen your license plate in the pkg area, i'll be mouthing the words "are you a Chowhound?" ,and giving you the official CH nannu nannu sign (of course). :-}

                                      1. Finally got back here today for the lunch buffet. It was OK, nothing really outstanding, the best dish was probably the Shrimp Chow Foon, tender shrimp with crisp veggies in a light and tasty sauce. I managed to snag all the salmon nigiri that was available since I got here just before noon. The pork and shrimp shumai was OK especially with the very tasty chili oil that was available. This is probably still the best choice around for a Chinese lunch buffet that also includes Sushi. Best should be in quotation marks.


                                        1. We've ended up at Mandarin Reading fairly frequently lately because of a confluence of factors and we've found that we consistently enjoy the more interesting options they offer on their specials menu. We especially loved the dish they had around Chinese New Year with chewy "moon" noodles.

                                          7 Replies
                                            1. re: bear

                                              They were about the size of a nickel and about that thick, flat and oval shaped and I thought they were sliced scallops or water chestnuts at first. They were served with vegetables and meat (we asked for chicken) which was stirfried with a light sauce. Sorry I can't be more specific, and I should be able to because we ordered them again the next time we were there, but it's been a crazy couple of months and my memory for details is swiss cheese. The name of the dish had "lunar" in it, I believe.

                                              1. re: Chris VR

                                                They sound like rice cakes (year cakes as a literal translation - nian gao). I love rice cakes.

                                                1. re: beetlebug

                                                  Lunar Rice Sticks! That's what it was called. Oh it's a terrible thing to get old but thank goodness Google is there to help me look like I actually remember things. http://www.bamboogourmet.com/newyear.... shows the menu: "Sautéed Lunar Rice Stick
                                                  With Shitake Mushroom, Napa cabbage, Celery & Carrots choice of Chicken, Beef, Pork, Shrimp or Vegetable - $9.50" I was surprised because I was expecting the thin vermicelli type rice sticks and this was nothing like that.

                                                  Oh and we also tried Walnut Pineapple Shrimp
                                                  Fresh pineapple shell garnished with large crispy shrimps, Lathered in a delectable honey walnut glaze - $16.95 which was in a sort of creamy sweet mayonnaisey sauce. I liked it well enough but my husband was not a fan.

                                                  I was hoping to try the desert: "Layered Rice Cake Tempura Dessert - With Acorn Squash & Sweet Potato, served with Asian Red Bean" but we ran out of time and room.

                                                  1. re: Chris VR

                                                    Hey, thanks, Chris. Sounds tasty and I love the texture of rice cakes.

                                            2. Just an update, after the original post last year. While My Love is still happy w/ the entrees , they usually all taste ,to me, like the same nondescript sauce. Boy I wish they would have that Chow foon, and Eggplant with Tofu that others have raved; we've never seen either. I make a meal from the apps and the tobiko topped Calif Roll-type maki but the Salmon and Whitefish tobenamedlater 1) scare me and 2) have no flavor whatsoever, so I don't eat them.

                                              To my astonishment, the Sliced Steak they sometimes have (Fri?) is really really good! You can absolutely taste the wood fired grill and it's cooked med rare. Also fyi desserts, the tiny glass bowls with coffee colored whipped cream are actually a delicious riff on tira misu, with really good coffee flavor. What a surprise!