I always find it difficult to write about “Chinese cuisine”—or even know quite what that means.
To many Americans, I suppose Chinese cuisine means ham-fried rice, potstickers and Kung Pao chicken. But in a country of 1.3 billion people constituting 20 percent of the world’s population, expecting to find a singular Chinese cuisine is like expecting compassion, humility and enlightened thought from George W. Bush: It ain’t gonna happen.
In most of America’s Chinese restaurants, what you really get is a sampling—a hodgepodge—of many different Chinese cuisines. In a single restaurant, you’ll likely find Szechwan Kung Pao chicken and smoked duck on the menu next to Cantonese seafood dishes like steamed sea bass. Mongolian barbecue and hot pots sidle up to the Jiangsu cuisine of the Yangtze River, which favors crustaceans. And you’ll find hot and spicy peppery plates from Hunan adjacent to the mellow flavors of Zhejiang cooking. The point is that talking about “Chinese food” is as complicated as talking about European food or African food; there’s a lot of terrain, cultures and culinary styles to cover.
For years I’ve heard that Mandarin restaurant in Bountiful is Utah’s best Chinese restaurant, and I’ve also heard that it’s tremendously overrated. So I decided it was time to check things out myself. I’d had takeout orders from Mandarin that left me without much of an opinion. But to be honest, I had serious doubts about a Chinese restaurant in Bountiful run by a Greek pharmacist. I suspected Mandarin might offer the best Chinese food in Bountiful, but not much more than that.
When Dr. Gregory Skedros opened Mandarin 27 years ago, he was a pharmacist with a plan to open a small Italian-Greek cafÃ© with a partner in the space on 900 North in Bountiful where a “chop-suey house,” as he puts it, had operated. Well, for reasons that aren’t especially pertinent here, the cafÃ© never came to be. Instead, Skedros hired a Chinese chef and the Mandarin was born. The restaurant now employs eight Chinese chefs and is wildly popular. Even on a Wednesday evening by 5 p.m., the large parking lot is jammed, and there’s a line of folks waiting outside the restaurant to claim a table. The wait on weekends can often run more than an hour. With the possible exception of New York’s Balthazar in its heyday, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The menu at Mandarin is the sort of pan-Chinese array I mentioned. The beef section of the menu alone covers a range of Chinese cuisines: Peking sesame beef, Mongolian beef, Kung Pao beef, Hunan beef with black-bean sauce, and satay beef with spinach, just to name a few. In fact, the menu even ventures beyond China with a couple of dishes from Skedros’ Greek homeland: Mediterranean lamb and chicken. I did a double take when I saw a plate of lamb go by my table, sprinkled with feta cheese. I suppose this is a throwback of sorts to the days when most Chinese restaurants in this country were “Chinese-American,” serving cheeseburgers alongside moo goo gai pan.
I’m not quite sure I’m ready to proclaim Mandarin the best Chinese restaurant in Utah. But I’d certainly place it among my top three. It’s easily the most visually appealing of any Chinese restaurant here (Park City’s Wahso doesn’t really count), with gorgeous ornate carved-wood ceilings that Skedros and a German carpenter designed and finished themselves. And the service I’ve experienced from excellent staff members like Justin, Tara and Skedros’ daughter, Angel, is on a par with some of the best service I’ve had anywhere in Utah, and easily the best of any Chinese restaurant. Mandarin’s prices add to the appeal: Almost nothing on the menu is priced over $10, and the wine list is a bargain-hunter’s bonanza, with markups of sometimes less than 50 percent per bottle. Conundrum, for example, sells for a mere $32 per bottle at Mandarin. Most restaurants charge well over $50.
Having sampled a huge number of Mandarin dishes, there were only two that I didn’t like: The popular ham-fried rice tastes burnt and greasy to me, and the hot and sour soup was out of balance (too much vinegar), too thick, and didn’t have the requisite cloud ear mushrooms I look for in this Chinese staple. But there were another dozen or so dishes that I liked and even loved. Some surprised me. I fully expected to detest strawberry chicken ($8.95). It’s a concept that sounds as bad to me as smothering smelt with chocolate sauce. But in fact, it’s a delicious dish of crispy and tender chicken chunks with a very subtle, fragrant strawberry sauce. Still, I prefer Mandarin’s cashew chicken ($8.95), which is simple but heavenly. My companion insists on Mandarin’s char shu ($6.95), a heaping appetizer plate of roasted sliced pork served with both mustard and tomato-based dipping sauces, and I’m now sold on the dish too. Ditto for beef with green beans or asparagus (depending on the season), which is strips of tender beef with equally tender veggies in a rich but not overpowering black-bean sauce. Mandarin’s Szechwan shrimp ($10.25) packed a spicy wallop but were delectable and impossibly tender. And a dish called “Satay chicken with zucchini” was a real stunner. More Mandarin dishes too numerous to mention were just as delightful. But the grand prize was my fortune cookie which, I kid you not, read “You would make an excellent critic.”
So if you have any doubts about a Greek guy running a Chinese restaurant, just remember that at Mandarin, there’s a line of talented Chinese chefs in the kitchen, a superb service staff and an eye-popping ambiance and dÃ©cor that is second to none. All of which makes Mandarin well worth a trip to Bountiful.
MANDARIN, 348 E. 900 North, Bountiful, 298-2406, Open for dinner, Monday-Saturday