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Sichuan Chowdown at Mandarin Gourmet Palo Alto

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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.

                        2. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away -- actually this galaxy but it seems so far away -- a few restaurants opened up in NYC and in the Bay Area that had Mandarin in their name to suggest the Northern Chinese origin of their cuisine as different from the prevailing Cantonese. The Mandarin name also suggested more upscale dining with white tablecloths, prices to match.These were revelatory places in the late 70s and 80s, but they became staid, catered to Western tastes and became the prototype for thousands of places at malls throughout the USA. There was a Mandarin Restaurant in Ghiradelli Square (I think) and it was goodish in the late 80s. I suspect the Mandarin Gourmet in Palo Alto followed this movement. From all reports it had become Westernized and boring. So, expectations, as others noted, were not high.

                          But Melanie strikes again. A discovery in plain sight, if ever there was one. The Sichuan menu is among the best in the Bay Area, in my view up there with Spices II, Little Sichuan in San Mateo, and a bit better than K&Y and its offspring on Clement, Chile House. And with white tablecloths yet (at least at the beginning of the meal) in a private room. Not your typical Chowdown… Maybe a bit (~20%) pricier than the others in this class, but this is downtown Palo Alto, after all.

                          Many of the dishes, particularly the appetizers, looked similar - red. After the appetizers, I thought for a second we were in an old time Italian restaurant with a red checkerboard tablecloth… But the saucing was quite different and appropriately specific for each dish. For example, the Spicy Pork with Garlic Sauce, was heavy with garlic, a tiny bit sweet, and warmed to kitchen temperature, perfect for the slices of pork. Among the other appetizers, the Husband-Wife Beef had excellent slices of tripe, the sliced chicken (口水雞 Saliva Chicken = Mouth Watering Chicken) was a perfect rendition of this classic Sichuan dish. Cucumber was a fine example, though unusually cut into rounded cubes (a chop stick challenge resulting in the first of the table cloth stains). The one non-red dish, the cold shredded bean curd was uninteresting.

                          The spicy chicken wings were bone-in (to my surprise given the table cloth) but my wife didn’t allow me to spit the bones on the floor (as we remembered from China in the 80s). As others have noted this was one of the best around, up with Spices II, Little Sichuan. Dan Dan noodles improved enormously when we got to the last bits with lots of sauce that had not been fully mixed in. I was not disturbed by the pasta, thought it OK. The cumin lamb was excellent, as good as this comes.

                          The weaker dishes for me were the kidney (overcooked, uninteresting), Pickled Mustard with Fish Filet (no where as good as Beijing Restaurant’s simply delicious version). I wasn’t quite as unhappy about the eggplant being fried in a batter as others, but though the sauce was good, this was not the best out of the kitchen.

                          The Poached Beef in Hot Chile Oil ( not a bad translation of the Chengdu misleading name 水煮牛 boiling water beef) was also as good as the best. There is also a fish filet version. So I was very confused about the 川味潑辣魚 Fish Fillet Buried in Chili Pepper Soup. A better translation, Sichuan Pungent Fish suggests the distinction from the boiling water dish as this was nicely spiced with aromatics. It was more liquid than the boiling water dishes, but not really a stock you want to eat much of. I need to research this a little to understand the distinction between 水煮 and 潑辣魚 (experts? KK?). Maybe this is a variant of a Chongqing hot pot?

                          I have always used ma po tofu as a test of the authenticity of a Sichuan restaurant as this is a dish that has a known origin, Mother Chen’s restaurant in Chengdu, and I have been lucky enough to sample the original. The item is listed under vegetables and called Szechuan Tofu. That gave us the chance to ask for it with beef as in the original. It always seems to be done with pork around here (or worse listed as vegetarian), so this was an interesting change. The chef seemed to use the same beef as in the boiling water beef, but chopped into small dice. Putting the beef question aside for a second, this is one of the 2 best ma po tofus I have had outside Chen’s (along with Spices II). Really excellent, spicy, complex. But I have to report that the beef at Chen’s was chopped fine (ground) and most important I remember being struck by a distinct flavor of 5-spice or similar very aromatic flavors in the meat (which, BTW, Fuchsia Dunlop does not mention in her recipe). This had such an extraordinary balance with the rest of the complexity of this really amazing dish, that I have never been able to forget this as one of the most memorable plates I ever had in any cuisine (along with Paul Bocuse’s truffle soup). Another detail was the very organized way the tofu was presented, one brick, sliced into cubes, but kept together very neatly with the sauce below and above. But back, to Mandarin Gourmet, their ma po tofu is very close but not yet the holy grail.

                          All in all, a first class meal, with the usual great company of chowers. Thanks, Melanie (Dr Wang) for organizing!

                          Finally, one general complaint about all the really good Sichuan places here. I am sensing a sameness to their menus and I believe the Sichuan kitchen is much broader than what is being offered. I know there are many more snack type dishes (of which dan dan noodles is just one). Seems like there is a lack of risk taking and I worry that the recent interest in authentic Sichuan is starting to lead to the same copy-cat marketing approach of giving them what some other restaurant has proven they will buy -- just as in the early days of “Mandarin” restaurants. So maybe it is no surprise that Mandarin Gourmet would be marketing a fine Sichuan menu in downtown Palo Alto.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: Thomas Nash

                            Thanks for the context, Thomas. With the exception of pickled chili dishes and the kung pao chicken soup, I'm fairly certain the remainder of their dishes are available elsewhere at varying levels of quality. While it would be nice to have one-stop-shopping from a restaurant with a small but well executed menu, it is nice to have places that serve dishes you can't find elsewhere.

                            BTW, how many places in the Bay Area do the brick of tofu preparation of Ma Po tofu? I've had it served that way one time in my life, and it's been in the past year in the Bay Area. Could it have been Spices III? They showed me that they use Wo Chong brand of tofu, but I can't recall if it's in a brick or not.

                            1. re: Thomas Nash

                              Regarding your opening comment, Thomas -- in the world *I* grew up in, here in the Bay Area, the late 1960s (due, some say, to the 1965 change in US immigration quotas) ushered in Sichuanese and Hunanese restaurants most notably, in places like SF and Berkeley. Those, not "Mandarin" (which became a catch-all marketing term) were the revelatory Chinese restaurants to many people I knew at the time in the Bay Area, which, as a region, lacked the particular adapted Cantonese restaurant tradition of NYC although some Cantonese specialties, like dim sum, had long been popular.

                              The 1970s Sichuanese cooking invasion was US-wide (albeit not uniform within the US); it spawned a several classic cookbooks (surpassing Dunlop's far more recent book on some details, such as MPTF variations). So fashionable had Sichuanese food become in the US by the 1970s that it was cited in a popular nationwide cartoon panel, and in Paul Fussell's social critique "Class" a few years later. (To repeat some historical context that has surfaced many times previously both on Chowhound and in other places where US cooking history is discussed.)

                              1. re: eatzalot

                                Thanks for clarifying and refreshing my memory. I was in NYC in the 60s and as a Columbia grad student was a regular at the weekly department lunch at one of the Sichuan/Northern Chinese places on upper Broadway. They were very good, but not fancy. Great for grad students and their Chinese professors, but not for grad student parents. For them (and many others) the "Mandarin" places were revelatory because of the quality and newness of the food. The white table cloths and mid-town East side location made them accessible and quite fashionable. I do recall being quite impressed by some dishes which were somehow more refined than the 2 Columbia area dives. Maybe it was the table cloths.

                                Anyway, my point was about the rise and then decline of new cuisines (such as Mandarin) after introduction into the US probably because of risk aversion by the restaurant owners who were copying the successful originals.

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  Regarding your opening comment, Thomas -- in the world *I* grew up in, here in the Bay Area, the late 1960s (due, some say, to the 1965 change in US immigration quotas) ushered in Sichuanese and Hunanese restaurants most notably, in places like SF and Berkeley.
                                  _____________________
                                  That is true - but the 1965 passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished once and for all national origin quotas that had been in place since 1924. An annual limitation of 170,000 visas was established for immigrants from the Eastern hemisphere with no more than 20,000 per country. The number of family reunification visas were unlimited.

                                  Some culinary historians claim Nixon's seven day visit in 1972 to China, when broadcast coverage of 12-course state banquets is aired, spawned the importation of large numbers of chefs from Hongkong and Taiwan to introduce more varietal Chinese food.

                                2. re: Thomas Nash

                                  My "test" dish for a Sichuanese restaurant is the very simple dry fried green (or string) beans (gan bian si ji dou). Actually this is a good test for any Chinese restaurant.

                                  A good Sichuanese rendition will use some preserved vegetables, not overload on garlic, minimal oil, "gan bian" texture. Heat/spice is personal preference, but I like a small bit of heat. Ideally the green beans won't be deep fried (or is not obviously so).

                                  I get depressed when I'm served old, tough green beans that are obviously deep fried.

                                  1. re: Cary

                                    Agreed The Dry Frying Technique is done slowly with little oil and the Preserved Vegetable should lend enough salt just to be noticed when it crunches between your teeth.

                                3. I thoroughly enjoyed this meal! Thanks to Melanie for organizing!

                                  = Tops =
                                  - 麻辣牛筋 Spicy Numbing Beef Tendon
                                  - 夫妻肺片 Hot & Spicy Beef Combination aka "Husband & Wife" : the meat was moister than most renditions I've tried.
                                  -口水雞(黃毛雞)Sliced Chicken with House Spicy Sauce : AKA mouth watering chicken (yellow haired chicken)
                                  - 川味麻婆豆腐 Szechuan Tofu aka "Mapo Tofu" (ordered extra spicy) : It had a bold flavor that I really enjoyed, but I would have liked a bit more heat. I'd like to eat MG's version side by side with the one at Spices III. The use of beef vs. pork didn't make much of a difference tastewise--- either's quantity in Mapo Tofu is so minimal, that I've always considered their presence more of a textural contribution.
                                  - 水煮牛 Poached Beef in Hot Chili Oil (ordered extra spicy) : "water boiled beef"

                                  = Also very good =
                                  - 酸菜魚片 Pickled Mustard with Fish Fillet
                                  - 重慶辣子雞 Spicy Chicken Wings in Chongqing Style (ordered extra spicy) : Thanks to PekoePeony for generously offering me a portion from her plate! That piece didn't retain much flavor or spice from the chilis, but had a lovely crunch and good amound of meat on the bone.
                                  - 川味潑辣魚 Fish Fillet Buried in Chili Pepper Soup
                                  - 川味魚香茄 Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce Szechuan Style : the dusting of rice flour (?) was light, and it stayed crunchy despite the sauce. Not at all oily.
                                  麻辣黃瓜 Cucumber with Spicy Numbing Sauce : refreshing

                                  = Good =
                                  川味旦旦麵 Szechuan Dan-Dan Noodle (2 orders) : not just for heat but for lathering, I would have liked more chili oil and less sesame paste or peanuts. Noodles could have used more bounce.

                                  = Neutral =
                                  火爆腰花 Stir Fried Pork Kidney
                                  泡椒墨魚仔 Pickled Chili with Baby Cuttlefish

                                  = Didn't care for =
                                  孜然羊 Cumin Lamb : the cumin was too musky and not enough wok char to the lamb. I also prefer versions with fewer vegetables and bigger slices (fresh chilis are okay)
                                  Sesame Ball Soup : I did like the soup base, but the mochi didn't have much bounce and their flavor was too subdued

                                  Most of the dishes had a good balance, so I didn't really diminish my enjoyment when then the spicing wasn't strong enough. Another reason is related to mdg's comment about there being a variety of levels of spice and flavor profiles. We ordered really well, and despite there being about as much red on the table (and tablecloth) as a Tarantino movie, no two dishes tasted the same.

                                  It's interesting to hear people's varied opinions both during and after the meal, especially about spicing--- I think part of it is that not everyone gets a portion from the same part of the plate!

                                  1. I really enjoyed all the appetizers but it seems my palate is not as discerning as others' - the saucing all seemed really similar to me. Maybe because it all got mixed up on my plate!

                                    Dan dan noodles were really good, and I actually liked the cabbage just as contrast, although it wasn't as wok-charred as I remember from China Village.

                                    Baby cuttlefish were really disappointing, they were really chewy.

                                    Loved the cumin lamb though - those little bits of lamb were just scrumptious.

                                    Thanks for organizing, Melanie! I like the idea of moving on to Korean chowdowns. :-)

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Cicely

                                      Ha, it is difficult to keep all the sauces from running into one another on your plate. One way to avoid that happening is to spill most of your food on the tablecloth :-)

                                      They gave chopsticks, but no spoon for the dan dan noodles. I'll try them again next time I'm in the neighbood and make an actual effort to stir things up. MG's proximity to Oren's Hummus is going to make for some great take-out dinners.

                                    2. Excuse the belated post here. We're going back for seconds tonight.

                                      My favorites were:
                                      Cold Shredded Bean curd with Sesame Oil
                                      not super-spicy, but good flavor

                                      Hot & Spicy Beef Combination aka "Husband & Wife"

                                      Szechuan Tofu aka "Mapo Tofu" (ordered extra spicy) - with beef rather than pork

                                      Spicy Chicken Wings in Chongqing Style - ordered extra spicy, they were very flavorful and much more meaty than Fey.

                                      Pickled Mustard with Fish Fillet

                                      OK dishes:
                                      Pickled Chili with Baby Cuttlefish - liked this, but wished cuttlefish cooked just seconds less - they were a bit too firm
                                      Stir Fried Hot Cabbage - echo on the request for more char on this

                                      Pass:
                                      Szechuan Dan-Dan Noodle: Too starchy and didn't like the thickness of the sauce

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: DeeGlaze

                                        DeeGlaze: Your favorites list is close to mine. I'd add:

                                        Spicy Numbing Beef Tendon

                                        Stir Fried Sour Shredded Potato

                                        1. re: DeeGlaze

                                          Forgot to say: Please let us know how it was on your return visit... Tks!

                                        2. Thanks y'all for a wonderful evening and thoroughly reported and photographed chowdown! I've not had the mindspace to write the post this meal deserves, so let me say something briefly now on what led us here. I've had this theory that while Albany's China Village is closed, those main chefs, prep cooks and kitchen assistants are out there working somewhere. This may be the best time to be exploring Sichuan restaurants when there's a chance of stumbling upon one of them in a different kitchen.

                                          The intrepid "bbulkow" spotted the addition of Sichuan specialties and posted the head's up last fall. Subsequently, "Jefferson" added a promising first-mouth report.

                                          "Sichuan Specialties at Mandarin Gourmet [Palo Alto]"
                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/874264

                                          According to Mandarin Gourmet's FB page, the Szechuan menu was introduced May 25, 2012 or two months after CV's fire.

                                          Though he wasn't able to join us due to a work conflict, Jefferson helped us out by going in and talking to the manager about arrangements for a large party. And in private communication, he expressed that the staff were surprised by his interest in the Sichuan menu as these dishes have not found favor yet among non-Chinese clientele. Though the details sounded promising, I still had a hard time shaking MG's 23-year rep as an Americanized place, and ended up squeezing an in-person visit in on Friday to get my own sense. I talked to one waiter and then to the manager extensively, impressing on him that I was only interested in authentic cooking. This is when I learned that the Sichuan chef was from Chengdu and has worked at Z & Y in the City. I also noticed that the round table for six in the bar window was filled with mainland Chinese who seemed to be enjoying a range of red-stained dishes.

                                          On the night of our meal, I kept up the mantra. I took one of our two waiters aside and reminded him that the members of our party have been to every Sichuan restaurant in the Bay Area and understand the cuisine very well from reading Chinese literature and from eating on the streets of Chengdu. I further explained that some restaurants seem reluctant to use the proper amount of hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorn) for non-Chinese customers, and that his chef should not make the mistake of holding back on "ma la" (numbing spice) with this group. He nodded and said that he would tell the chef that we were only interested in "real Chinese food".

                                          We ordered in two stages. This was for a few reasons. First, we didn't want everything to hit the table at once. Second, we wanted a chance to calibrate on spice level when there was still room to make adjustments. And third, if the appetizer round was not satisfactory, I would have recommended that we order just a small amount of food and instead drink most of the $200 minimum required for the private room.

                                          When I relayed the second stage of our order, I requested certain dishes that should be blazing hot to be made extra spicy. I really have no idea of this makes a difference or not in how the kitchen prepares them. I was glad to have Tom Nash next to me who reminded me to ask for beef in the mapo doufu.

                                          At the end of the meal, a female staffer came in, not sure if she's the hostess, manager or owner, to check on things. We asked her if the chef could come and take a bow. She said that he was too shy for that. She did share his name, Chef Tang.

                                          1. Finally got over here with three people. Gave the waiter a stern "we like spicy", and he steered us around the menu a bit, although we had little overlap with your order.

                                            I notice that the main menu still has "Pu pu platter" on it. Heh.

                                            Won Ton in Spicy Sauce (new style). I didn't see it on the menu so just ordered it. Pretty tasty. We were told if we want it again, we have to order "new style".

                                            Cucumber in Hot Oil Sauce. Dish had big chunks and a lot of cucumber. Slightly difference sauce from the Won Tons, a little brighter.

                                            Ma Po Tofu. After the long discussion here about the dish, I simply ordered it without any extra preamble. We seemed to get it veg style, and it was only OK. Very little numbing spice.

                                            水煮魚片 Poached Fish Fillet in Hot Chili Oil - this was recommended instead of the "buried in hot chili pepper soup. Favorite of GF. Nice layer of fish, in a soup-ish sauce, with more hot pepper just laying on the fish.

                                            辣子樟茶鴨 Tea Smoked Duck with Chili Pepper - this was my favorite dish. There was a chopped up tea smoked duck in there somewhere, under a huge pile of peppers and peanuts (kind of like chungking chicken wings). Hard to tell bone from meat, but the bits of meat were great, with the same kind of hot infusion.

                                            Total about $27/pp with a lot of food.

                                            In general, this did feel more organized and better then Fey, and the waiter was a dear in helping us find the spicer things on the menu. I think the chef was working near the top of his range, which is strange. The food simply wasn't china-hot, missed a lot of numbing, but was packed with flavor and good.

                                            Melanie, I only once had to impress on the waiter that we wanted hot, and we got a fairly authentic-style (but still filtered a bit) meal. I don't know if they're been impressed by your visit, or if they read hear.

                                            I also noticed like you did that there's that nice little table at the front of the bar area that some mainland chinese colonized, away from the main dining room. Also, when we came in, there was a table for at least 40 going in the upper area.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: bbulkow

                                              Picture of Tea Smoked Duck referenced above

                                              The dish was a little picked over at this point, with the major duck bits rescued from the peppers, but you can see some bits still in there. Imagine more.

                                               
                                              1. re: bbulkow

                                                Glad you included the photo. I don't recall having tea smoked duck served like that, chopped up and stir-fried. Doesn't the meat dry out?