By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The year was 1980. President Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House in a Republican sweep. Ted Turner had launched CNN. And on Mission Gorge Road, a new Chinese restaurant opened its doors to meet the growing demand of consumers on the hunt for meals that exuded feistier flavors than standard, Cantonese-style chow mein.
Convoy Street aside, Szechuan Mandarin remains one of the last full-service restaurants in San Diego’s urban core specializing in classic, chili-laced dishes from China’s Sichuan Province. It’s where you’ll find spicy eggplant, crispy beef and Kung Pao chicken, not to mention fragrant, traditional crispy duck available in whole or half portions.
Mandarin House in Bankers Hill was part of this league until shuttering last year. Currently, Hong Kong Restaurant, Jimmy Wong’s Golden Dragon Asian Bistro and Wang’s North Park come close, but they mix other styles of Asian cooking heavily into their menus.
Flanked by car dealerships, the generically named restaurant shows its age with a couple of aquariums, plastic flora and cultural wall art. Patrons are greeted by an intimate cocktail bar leading into three cozy dining sections that are kept clean and tidy.
The steamed pork dumplings are among my favorites. Served eight to an order, their supple casings are filled with traditional ginger-infused ground pork and draped boldly in hot chili oil. Although if you’re intent on proceeding to other mouth burners, you’ll have to insist on “extra spicy” since all of the dishes listed in red are served medium by default.
Soups by the bowl easily feed two people. The seaweed-tofu recipe features a deep, earthy flavor from the ocean greens, which I’ve found overused for my liking.
Conversely, the hot and sour soup is addicting, with the peppery hotness battling equally with the sourness of rice vinegar.
You get more poultry than peanuts in Szechuan Mandarin’s Kung Pao chicken. In classic Sichuan style, the ingredients are cloaked in a reddish and somewhat fruity tasting sauce achieved from chili paste. This compared to the less-thrilling recipes used in takeout joints where the red turns salty brown because of its reliance on soy sauce.
The pungent chicken rarely disappoints. It incorporates just enough garlic, chilies and cilantro to maintain boldness. Deep-fried breast meat is used in the dish, but appeared rather sparingly when I last ordered it.
In a recent visit, my companion’s Szechuan shrimp turned out to be the sweetest dish on our table, despite the menu designating it as spicy. A profuse amount of glossy red sauce resembling sweet and sour blanketed the medium-size shrimp while completely camouflaging the finely chopped vegetables that were included in the scheme. He fished out the seafood and left the rest.
Faint waves of heat emerged from my Mandarin pork, although the menu’s description of ginger in the sauce was undetectable. The meat was cut into thin strips, intermingled with crisp green bell peppers. For the most part, the pork was tender and trimmed of its fat.
In addition to the spicy options, tamer dishes include black bean filet of bass, crispy orange beef, walnut shrimp and almond chicken — the kind of meals that constituted as exotic fare to the steak-and-potato set of past generations.
Several years ago the wine list at Szechuan Mandarin was surprisingly large and ambitious. It has since been scaled down to pedestrian labels such as Kendall Jackson, Woodbridge and the like, due perhaps to the fact that consumers don’t typically flock to Chinese restaurants for the vino.
We slugged Mandarin martinis instead, which provided a sweet, stimulating offset to the spicy dumplings and my pork dish after raising its heat level with house chili sauce. But that isn’t to say you’ll need a fire hose to quell your palate if choosing a dish marked in red. The food is safely spiced and as warmly familiar as the inspiring message sitting inside your fortune cookie.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene and other subjects for various print and broadcast media outlets in the area. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.