We all have spent a certain amount of time in the last decade in pursuit of the great Chinese restaurant, the mythical Taiwanese café or the swank Cantonese seafood Valhalla we instinctively know must exist among the several thousand Chinese restaurants in the Los Angeles area. And though that ideal restaurant continues to elude us, the dozens of close-to-flawless dishes we have found — the pork pump at Lake Spring Cuisine, the clay-pot barbecue rice at Luk Yue, the hand-pulled noodles at Chu’s Mandarin, the steamed crab with garlic at Empress Pavilion — continue to persuade us that perfection is close at hand.
But caught up as we are in pursuit of the impossibly great Chinese restaurant, we are sometimes blinded to the not inconsiderable virtues of the pretty good Chinese restaurant, a place that is conveniently located, open early and late, cheerful about takeout, and blessed with both easy parking and a huge menu of fresh and amusing food. At a great Chinese restaurant, it is easy to worry too much about whether you are ordering properly, whether the steamed carp is a better choice than the rock cod, or whether the Chinese-language signs on the walls represent amazing seasonal delicacies you will never get to taste. At a pretty good Chinese restaurant, you eat what you always eat. It’s fine. You’re happy.
In the last 10 years, I suppose I have eaten as often at Chinatown’s Mandarin Shanghai as I have at any other Chinese restaurant. There have been quick midafternoon meals; takeout on the way home from work; Chinese dinners out with assorted toddlers; intimate, long lunches; and elaborate dinners before the opera. Mandarin Shanghai, affiliated somehow with the family that runs the Mon Kee seafood restaurants, was once reputed to be the best Shanghainese restaurant in Los Angeles, with a broad repertoire of the sweetish braised and baked dishes of eastern China. It has been surpassed by several San Gabriel kitchens. But there was a time when if you wanted roast yellow fish in brown sauce, sea cucumbers with shrimp roe or a dish of sautéed eel, this was pretty much the only place in town.
Mandarin Shanghai is a handsome, narrow restaurant hidden away in the back of the small mall at the top of Broadway, lit with lightning slashes of red neon, remodeled into something you might have seen on Melrose in 1986. As is usual in this part of Chinatown, the clientele includes a large number of non-Chinese, and nobody will blink if you order chicken chop suey or sweet-and-sour pork, though Szechuan eggplant and kung pao chicken are the more usual orders.
If you’ve eaten in many Shanghainese restaurants, you know what to expect: appetizer plates of bony, smoked fish; hacked bits of cool chicken marinated in rice wine; a vivid pink terrine of cured pork; chewy vegetarian “duck” sculpted from black mushrooms and bamboo shoots. You won’t do badly either with the standbys of shredded pork with salty pickled vegetables, Chinese watercress sautéed with preserved bean curd, or coins of sliced rice noodle fried with pork and leeks.
If you look around the restaurant, you’ll find the same dishes on the tables of almost all the Chinese. Here is what used to be the definitive version of dry-fried string beans in Los Angeles, seared in a blistering hot wok, glazed with a classically pungent sauce of pork, garlic, black beans and too much oil, slightly smoky, with that crisp-tender sweetness that usually stays locked within string beans. Shang-kang chicken is what you’re really looking for when you order a sweet-and-sour dish, poultry chunks topped with a slightly sweet orange peel–spiced sauce and fried crisp. The steamed lion’s head meatballs may be the best food in the house, big and fluffy, decked out with ruffly manes of cabbage, fragrant with garlic and star anise, bathed in half an inch of the mother of all brown sauces.
The restaurant has a minor specialization in earthen-pot entrées, soupy things served in great clay vessels as big around as satellite dishes, and first among these is the fish-head earthen pot, the front half of a gigantic carp stewed in an aromatic stock, laced with sharply spicy chiles and mellowed with bean paste, the thing to get here if you don’t mind your dinner looking back at you. The rest of the fish, one presumes, finds its way into the popular dish of fish tail braised with a seemingly infinite amount of garlic cloves.
I’ve had better braised fish tail — sharper, more finely textured, less oily — and you probably have too. The fish head, like most of the food here, is merely pretty good. But pretty good is enough sometimes, and Mandarin Shanghai is one of the most useful Chinese restaurants I know. Dessert, as you may have guessed, is cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies. Good luck.
970 N. Broadway; (213) 625-1195. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $19–$32, more with live seafood. Beer and wine. Validated lot parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: dry sautéed string beans; lion’s head meatballs; fish-head earthen pot.