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Sichuan Chowdown at Mandarin Gourmet Palo Alto

Tonight 12 of us gathered to try the "Classic Szechuan Dishes" menu at Mandarin Gourmet Restaurant in Palo Alto. Thanks to Melanie Wong for organizing. I'll leave it to the rest of the group to add their comments and pictures.

Here's what we ordered:
Cucumber with Spicy Numbing Sauce
Cold Shredded Bean curd with Sesame Oil
Sliced Pork with Spicy Garlic
Hot & Spicy Beef Combination aka "Husband & Wife"
Spicy Numbing Beef Tendon
Sliced Chicken with House Spicy Sauce
Spicy Chicken Wings in Chongqing Style (ordered extra spicy)
Stir Fried Pork Kidney
Poached Beef in Hot Chili Oil (ordered extra spicy)
Fish Fillet Buried in Chili Pepper Soup
Pickled Mustard with Fish Fillet
Pickled Chili with Baby Cuttlefish
Szechuan Dan-Dan Noodle (2 orders)
Stir Fried Sour Shredded Potato
Stir Fried Hot Cabbage
Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce Szechuan Style
Szechuan Tofu aka "Mapo Tofu" (ordered extra spicy)
(Dining companions: I think that's everything but please add to the list if I've forgotten a dish or 2...)

Mandarin Gourmet Restaurant
420 Ramona St.
Palo Alto CA 94301
650-328-8898
Open 7 days
www.mandaringourmet-paloalto,com

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  1. Thanks for starting the thread!! Photos from the chowdown are posted here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjF77UqY

    I think all of us had pretty low expectations as Mandarin Gourmet is not known as a Sichuan restaurant, but we were all very pleasantly surprised and pleased with our meal. Thanks to the incomparable Ms. Wong for organizing!

    We ordered exclusively from their 1.5 pages of Sichuanese offerings and found almost everything to be far superior to nearby Fey Restaurant in Menlo Park, where many of us attended the recent chowdown. Spiciness level was moderate even when asked to make things "extra spicy", but many dishes had good heat -- personally I like this level but others may prefer spicier. My take on the dishes:

    FAVORITES:
    - Tendon appetizer: Could be thinner but still a good rendition with a nice amount of Sichuan peppercorns
    - Chongqing chicken: Served bone-in with crispy skin and good flavor
    - Eggplant: I think I'm the only one who really liked this dish, but I guess I'm a sucker for breaded & crispy, deep fried foods with a soft & mushy interior. Quite different from the usual rendtions of this dish, with a thicker breading and heavier sauce

    GOOD:
    - Sliced pork appetizer: Same sauce as the cucumber but the sweetness worked better here.
    - Hot & Spicy beef combo appetizer
    - Cold shredded bean curd: Elegant cold "noodles" of tofu; refreshing.
    - Poached beef in chili oil: Not as spicy as the barely-edible versions at Little Sichuan and the like
    - Fish fillet in Chili Pepper Soup: Not sure why they initially gave us a slotted spoon to serve as the soup was tasty. Wish there were more noodles
    - Pickled Mustard in Fish Fillet Soup: I love this dish wherever I go, hard to go wrong
    - Dan dan noodles: More sweet & soy-saucy than I expected. Still tasty but not quite what I think of for dan-dan noodles
    - Shredded potato: After many disappointing versions at other Sichuan restaurants, the one here was full of flavor, though a less vinegary than I expected
    - Ma Po Tofu: The spiciest dish of the evening, ordered with beef instead of pork
    - Sesame Ball Soup: The only dish were Fey's rendition was superior. Still tasty, but with thicker skins in the mochi and a less pronounced sesame flavor

    HO-HUM / NOT A FAN:

    - Cucumber appetizer: Barely spicy, strangely sweet, with a slight aftertaste of sichuan peppercorns.
    - Pork kidney: While many 'hounds liked this, I'm personally not a fan of kidney and this didn't convert me
    - Pickled Chili with Baby Cuttlefish: The baby cuttlefish were super cute but this dish wasn't otherwise memorable
    - Cabbage: Good but nothing special

    27 Replies
    1. re: PekoePeony

      "Ma Po Tofu. ... ordered with beef instead of pork"

      Which sense of "instead of," Pekoe? Does the dish come otherwise with pork at that restaurant?

      Two side notes on that point: (1) The standard Sichuan-based anglophone cookbooks I've cited occasionally on this board say more often than not that Mother Chen's original Chengdu recipe used beef. (Surprising to me, since pork is by far the more common meat in China.) The one eyewitness account from the Harvard-Yenching scholar said unhelpfully "you ordered by weight, so many grams of meat [unspecified!] and so many grams of bean curd," adding that the dish was so hot it made him break out in a sweat.

      (2) A couple of the best versions I've had of that dish, exquisitely balanced and nuanced, both from Sichuanese cooks at Bay Area restaurants now closed, were vegetarian. "We find the meat doesn't really add much" flavorwise, I was told at one place.

      Thanks for detailed reports. I didn't catch where the cook was from - did that info surface during the chowdown?

      1. re: eatzalot

        See my comments about ma po tofu in my main reply to this thread.

        I don't remember ordering the meat at Chen's by weight, but maybe they did that for us since no English was spoken. The dish was fiery hot, so that my otherwise very bold spouse had trouble eating it.

        I think as a vegetarian dish, this would be missing much of its complexity.

        The chef is supposed to be from Chengdu, apparently by way of K&Y. I think Melanie reported that on another recent thread.

        1. re: Thomas Nash

          Thomas: The eyewitness that I alluded to referred to the ordering ritual from Mother Chen herself in the early 1900s. I do not have any particular reason to suppose that this or any other detail of her restaurant is preserved unchanged now, generations later.

          That particular testimonial was quoted in the "Mrs Chiang" Sichuanese cookbook, a US standard on the subject since it appeared in the 1970s. (The same book also gives, for example, an account of dan dan mian's origins similar to the one Fuchsia Dunlop repeated in her Sichuan cookbook published 35 years later. That is the story "we learned from Fuchsia Dunlop" according to your post in the dan dan mian thread here, though I and many others in the US learned it much earlier, from Mrs Chiang for instance.)

          Also, after having tried Ma Po tofu now for a few decades including from several respected Sichuanese chefs, and having cooked many variations of it at home from Chinese recipes, my observation is that the presence or absence of meat was all but unnoticeable. That is consistent with the Sichuanese chef's comment that I already reported upthread. It may even be something of a trade trick within restaurants -- not noticed by many customers -- an impression I got when I raised the point at another restaurant. Meat's flavor is subtle compared to the seasonings in the dish and its main cooking role is as a minor umami, redundant here because of the other powerful natural flavor enhancers in the do ban jiang that is one of the dish's signature ingredients.

          Still curious for Pekoe's answer to my specific pork vs beef question, and about chef's regional background.

          1. re: eatzalot

            We had the impression that since the dish was listed under Vegetables, it would be meatless unless otherwise specified. So we asked for beef instead of the usual pork at other restaurants. However, I am not entirely sure if they normally serve this meatless or with pork.

            1. re: Thomas Nash

              My understanding from having this in Chengdu is that the traditional recipe is pork. (Like almost everything we ate in Sichuan. We had beef exactly once in a month, and only because my friend's mom cooked it at home.)

              1. re: Windy

                Because there's some nit-pickers here, do you mean "traditional" or "contemporary local practice"? You might get people claiming that NOW they might use pork in Chengdu but THEN they used beef ---

                1. re: bbulkow

                  Like Thomas, I've eaten at the restaurant that claims to have originated this dish, with friends who are from just outside Chengdu. It's a humble greasy spoon in a provincial city known for hot pot.

                  The last century in Western China didn't include much meat (or food) at all. Cattle aren't raised or eaten there the way they are in the US, even if beef is offered to foreigners or at a banquet, the way lobster was when I was growing up.

                  Sichuan is no exception, and the meats that were offered to me in homes and restaurants in 2000 were pork, ham, pork, and occasionally poultry (rabbit as well as chicken). As Ruth points out, it's not necessarily much meat, but there's often a little pork or ham in vegetables.

                  I'm not including Chongqing, although it was part of Sichuan province until fairly recently; they've always eaten more seafood because of access to the Yangtze.

                  China is rapidly changing as people have access to satellite TV, more disposable income, and can travel outside their provinces. Beef and maybe even the dreaded cheese become status symbols (I had some terrifying wine). But this is a home-cooked dish from a greasy spoon, regardless of whatever Mission Chinese is inventing. That's why it's disappointing there aren't more delicious versions.

                  1. re: Windy

                    Windy, MPTF is a favorite dish of mine ever since experiencing good versions from Chengdu-trained chefs many years ago. It's also, as I discovered after reading careful accounts and recipes from Chengdu, a fairly simple dish at heart and not hard to make well. (All the more disappointing that non-Sichuanese chefs often make unrecognizable and boring dishes under the same name - much as cooks all over Europe and elsewhere casually dub any random tomato-meat sauce "Bolognese" though no Emilia-Romagna native would perceive it as such.)

                    As mentioned upthread, I too was surprised (given beef's relatively small role in Chinese cooking generally) that some generally fastidious writers, such as Fuchsia Dunlop who graduated as a chef there before writing cookbooks, stress the use of beef. Earlier sources even refer to practices during Mother Chen's original popularization of MPTF a century ago.

                    But in even excellent US restaurant versions I've generally seen Ma Po Tofu made with pork (like most other dishes with meat) or meatless (I ask explicitly.)

                    Note that in MPTF recipes from China, the meat is a minority ingredient compared to tofu. I've now made MPTF all three ways at home and to repeat from earlier, found the meat only a faint contributor to flavoring, compared to the other ingredients.

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      Seems the original was really lamb not beef…

                      Tony Zee in his book “Swallowing Clouds”, which is a wonderfully entertaining introduction to Chinese words and characters and culture related to cuisine, gives a history of the pock marked women and ma po tofu. In notes, he indicates his Chinese language source: “For a wealth of details, such as precise names and dates, on the story of Ma-Po Bean curd, see Lin [, H.Y. The Bean Curd of China 中国豆腐. Taipei: Pure Literature Publishing Co., 1983], P. 85.”

                      Seems the widowed women and her sister lived between a tofu maker and a lamb shop and were often visited by coolies who had been friends with her husband. They brought her tofu and lamb and she cooked them the famous dish. Soon her house became a very popular restaurant … and the rest is history.

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        How 'bout that! It makes sense; also, lamb and beef being niche meats in China (traditionally regional, & particularly associated with Muslim cooking) they're often cross-substituted in the same dish. Thanks Thomas!

                        For reference, and interesting contrast on other details, here are background explanations from standard Sichuanese cookbooks in the US. Take this posting as a review and enthusiastic recommendation of these books (among my most consulted, for Chinese cooking at home!)

                        - Delfs (The Good Food of Szechwan, 1974):

                        "Ma-po Dou-fu is more correctly but less frequently called Chen Ma-po Dou-fu, or 'Old Pockmarked Mrs. Chen's Bean Curd.' It takes its name from the wife of a certain Ch'en Fu-chih who ran a restaurant in [Chengtu] in the 1860s..."

                        - Chiang Jung-Feng via Schrecker and Schrecker (Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, 1976):

                        "Eugene Wu, the librarian of the Harvard-Yenching Library, grew up in Chengtu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd, or mapo doufu, at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched...

                        "In many ways, the ingredients used in a mapo doufu, its appearance, and its actual taste are similar to the classic 'in the style of fish,' or yuxiang, dishes of Szechwan. It is quite possible that the poorly complected lady's masterpiece is just a pseudonymous variation of that traditional style of cooking."

                        Incidentally Delfs specifies pork but says beef is often used; the Chiang recipe calls for either.

                        Other than Thomas's quotation, all accounts I've seen mention the Chens' restaurant as preceding the dish, and the husband as the original restaurateur. (Maybe overshadowed, like the poet Percy Shelley, by his wife's intense creation -- if indeed the Chens' role was real, not apocryphal.)

                        1. re: eatzalot

                          … and now the rest of the story

                          [which I omitted to keep my earlier post short].

                          According to Zee’s version: The women and her husband were originally from Chengdu, but moved to the outskirts of Chongqing after quarrels in their extended family. There her husband got a job as a manager at an oil press. He always treated well the coolies who carried the oil from the press to the market. In gratitude the coolies would bring gifts of fresh vegetables or chickens to the family. In exchange the wife would prepare lunch for them with the lamb and bean curd from the shops next door.

                          After her husband died when a ferry capsized, she and her sister continued to live in the same place. The coolies would come by and ma po tofu was on its way …

                          What I find surprising about this version is the Chongqing connection as the Chen restaurant (and successors) seem to be only associated with Chengdu.

                          There are so many widely different versions of the ma po story that one really does not know the true history. But this one has a pretty good provenance.

                          1. re: Thomas Nash

                            Well, many of the accounts I've seen reflect decent provenance, and often nearer Chengdu than Taipei. Thus the Chiang book quotes a witness from Chengdu on Ma Po herself. Fuchsia Dunlop (who, again, was trained as a cook in Chengdu) also mentions laborers and oil, but reports that Mrs Chen prepared MPTF "for laborers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to [Chengdu's] markets" and like essentially every account I've seen besides that above, identifies her as the wife of a restaurateur.

                            Dunlop says that the Chengdu recipe in her cookbook is the one taught in the Sichuan provincial cooking school, and used in the multiple "Chengdu restaurants named after Old Mother Chen," some references to which appeared in this thread.

                            Like so many other cooking specialties now famous, Ma Po tofu evidently has no shortage of alleged original kitchens nowadays.

                            I like the Chiang book's suggestion that MPTF was an evolution of a well established genre that became popularly tied to one cook's name. Just as many Americans learned of the centuries-old Roman specialty Fettuccine al burro from one particular cook (Alfredo di Lellio) who took a showy version of it on tour. In that case, their understanding of the dish even evolved to something different from the original and to derivations like Alfredo "sauce," a concept unknown to Alfredo.

                2. re: Windy

                  Just another data point, my brother in law who spent some years in Chengdu for work, and also ate at the so called original Chen mapo tofu restaurant said the meat was beef, but didn't think it was a big deal one way or another.

              2. re: eatzalot

                While my current guide to Sichuan food is the Dunlop book, I have another regional chinese cookbook "Chinese Regional Cooking" by Liang (first written in 1979 in NYC, she was born in sichuan but raised in Taiwan) that includes Sichuanese dishes, and after comparing various sources, is pretty traditional in ingredient ratios and techniques.

                The mapo tofu recipe in this book includes ground pork.

                My wife is vegetarian and I've made veggie versions and meat versions and I believe the meat doesn't contribute much to the final flavors of the dish. If anything there is missing texture, but I sometimes use the fake ground meat products that are pretty deceiving.

                1. re: Cary

                  I think Chinese chefs think of small amounts of pork as a condiment. :-)

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Yes and of the various recipe sources I've seen, those more adapted to overseas readers tend to use pork, those more fastidious to Chengdu origins, beef. I got into the habit several years ago of querying restaurants (after encountering those superb local vegetarian versions of MPTF that I mentioned) and many but not all used pork.

                    Not to reprise a large topic hashed out on CH home-cooking threads, but an important early (1970s era) group of exceptional US Chinese cookbooks came from US scholars of Chinese history or art who had lived in China (Delfs, Chiang via the Schreckers who translated and edited, Barbara Tropp). I mention this because their scholarly sensibilities showed, in little ways like considering alternatives and acknowledging uncertainties of origin. Delfs (1974) gave a group of MPTF variations and wryly remarked about frequent claims to authenticity. Dunlop's excellent more recent Sichuan cookbook shows more journalistic authorial sensibilities, e.g. here is the definitive MPTF recipe (none of Delf's cautions re such claims). Dunlop's one recipe resembles Delf's fermented-black-beans variation of a simpler basic MPTF version, IIRC.

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      To add one more author to the list, Kenneth Lo, Chinese Provincial Cooking, London 1979/84, (bought in Beijing in 1987) uses minced beef in his MPTF recipe. He does not mention the aromatic spices I remember, but calls for a "strong stock".

                      Other government published books I picked up in the late 80s in China do not have a MPTF recipe.

                      Barbara Tropp in her The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, indicated she did not like ma po tofu and provided a Hunan tofu dish she preferred (using "ground top round beef or ground pork butt").

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        Hmm. I found another book in my archives. Fu Pei Mei's book (vol1) has a real simple Mapo dofu dish. She mentions using stock for the liquid, but mentions pork, but allows for beef in parens.

                        Anyways, back to work.

                        1. re: Cary

                          Cary, "Pei Mei" as many people call her is sort of a Julia Child of Taiwan, instructing TV viewers there for many years about Chinese cooking, IIRC. Her multi-volume cookbook set or at least part of it (vol. 1 is the main, general book, no?) became available electronically a year or two ago.

                          The reason pork is a natural variation (and guess) in MPTF recipes is just that it's so much more common in Chinese cooking generally. Beef and lamb are at least traditionally regionalized, and some particular dishes featuring them come from Muslim Chinese regions.

                          (How I regret missing these Sichuanese chowdowns! I've been seeing the invites for years but just not been free at the right times. I have in mind to organize one myself for another popular newish Sichuanese restaurant I've tried several times already, and reported here: Chef Zhao Bistro. Its Chengdu chef, who was an instructor there, is a real artist and has actively suggested bringing in some appreciative diners so he can show some things beyond the _Chinese_ menu. A modest looking restaurant, moderately priced like so many good Chinese ones.)

                          1. re: eatzalot

                            Yup. I have a hardcopy of vol1, and my sister in law has vol2. They are both pretty generic (in today's cookbook world) for regional chinese cooking, but I imagine back in the day it was pretty informative. Photos, and recipes in Chinese characters AND english, which is pretty useful.

                            I found a used copy on amazon or ebay at a cheap price.

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              Please do! I suggested Chef Zhao as well and it would be great to have a Chowdown there.

                              Michael

                              1. re: eatzalot

                                I've had to miss most of the previous chowdowns mostly because weekday nights are usually bad for me. I'll do my best to come.

                                I haven't been to Chef Zhao Bistro since it used to be called "Trend".

                                1. re: Cary

                                  Unfortunately the persistently mediocre reputation of Trend, a restaurant long gone now, has distracted people from the quite unrelated kitchen operations now at the same physical address. There are even other oblique connections between the two different restaurants to distract the susceptible -- but I wish people would finally get OVER it, and approach Chef Zhao on its own, significant, merits. (I'm sure bulkow felt he had good reason for including "was Trend" in titling his Zhao thread, but this sort of thing can extend an old restaurant's memories where an open mind serves better.)

                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                    Chef Zhao very much deserves a look. The location, close to the castro district yet so far away, does no favors.

                                    I like the fact that it's closer to 101 and easier to park, it's been creeping up in rotation, slowly but steadily.

                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                      While it is commendable to expect people to approach a "new" restaurant with a completely open mind, Chinese restaurants are known to "change" names anytime it is sold or for a "remake" at a drop of a hat, even though the front and/or back of house staff remains the same. I've lived in the Bay Area long enough to see it countless times.

                                      I have no knowledge of what happened with Chef Zhao Bistro, so I have no conclusions on it.

                                      Telling people to get OVER it, isn't the best way to go about it.

                                      1. re: Cary

                                        Cary, my point simply is not to judge a fundamentally new restaurant by (or cloud the picture more than necessary by carrying over impressions from) a different business formerly at the same address. That was the _actual_ as opposed to hypothetical situation here, and the premise of my remark.

                                        Certainly restaurants re-brand and re-package themselves (or even the opposite, like Alexander's Steakhouse, which got rid of the defining individuals, but kept the name and reputation they built).

                                        But in this case, inquiries on the very first vist disclosed radical and VERY promising differences in the new restaurant, Chef Zhao Bistro. That information was available to anyone who visited or asked, and surely on a public forum like this one, is much more important to potential diners than echoes of a past business now irrelevant.

                              2. re: Thomas Nash

                                I believe that Lo title, Thomas, is the one usually sold In the US as "Chinese Regional Cooking" (1979). I cited it in the d-d-m survey thread that Melanie started earlier this year. (I actually posted an overview of the book online in the 1980s, when fewer people were using the Internet, though the Bay Area had large numbers even then.)

                                Some of Lo's books are good pan-Chinese references in English, especially for post-Revolution recipes from the mainland. He himself was from the North-East IIRC, anyway he dumbed down some Sichuanese recipes on the evident assumption for instance that hua jiao (Sichuan "peppercorn") was hard to find in UK or US at the time. Sadly - because it's a unique spice very important to Sichuan cuisine.

                2. A couple more dishes:

                  Cumin Lamb
                  Sesame Ball Soup

                  1. This was great fun! The restaurant didn't fall into either of the common problems with Sichuan places in this area: make everything too bland, or make all the spicy dishes and overwhelming blast of ma la spice that obliterates everything else. The dishes here had varying levels of spiciness with a variety of flavor profiles.

                    My favorites included the tendon appetizer, the mapo tofu, the cumin lamb, the potato, and the cabbage. But I liked just about everything except the eggplant (have had many better renditions), the kidney (like PekoePeony, I'm not a kidney fan and this didn't convert me), and the sesame ball soup (reflecting my blind spot regarding desserts in Asian cuisines).

                    The Chongqing wings reminded me of the version of this dish that I had in Beijing. Some folks who were more experienced with cumin lamb thought it was just OK, but this was first time having this dish so the novelty effect and the very different flavor profile from the rest of the dishes helped it stand out for me.

                    The wine list included a Thomas Fogarty Gewurztraminer which went will with these dishes. Beer choices were limited so all the beer drinkers went with Tsingtao.

                    Thanks to Melanie for organizing, to PekoePeony for the pictures, to RWCFoodie for keeping track of everything we ordered, and to all the fellow hounds for a delightful meal.

                    Michael

                    1. This meal exceeded my rather low expectations. The Chonqing style wings were the best I've had in a while, perfectly crispy with good heat and numbing. The kidneys had terrific texture and their depth balanced out the heat. The Ma Po tofu was terrific with beef. The eggplant was interesting in that took on an almost crunchy texture and had a bright orange color. Unexpected but enjoyable. The final dish, the fish filet buried in chilis, was intense. The longer it sat the hotter it got. The waiter warned us not to take too much broth but that just encouraged me further.
                      The cumin lamb missed for me. Not enough heat or cumin kick. The dan dan noodles suffered from a gummy texture.

                      Overall, this was probably the best Sichuan meal I've had on the Peninsula in a while. Will likely enter the rotation.

                      Thank you Dr. Wang for organizing.

                      1. devastated i missed this -- mandarin gourmet was always our celebration destination for a large group of friends in college.

                        glad some dishes get CH approval.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Dustin_E

                          I would love to go to some of these chow-downs. How do I find out about them?

                          1. re: artisan02

                            In the FAQ for the SF Bay Area board there is a listing of the links for subscribing the the Yahoo groups that have been set up for this purpose.

                            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/469166

                            Subscribe the group(s) of your choice (SF, Silicon Valley, East Bay, North Bay) and you will receive email notices whenever anyone begins planning a Chowdown.