Going Down to Dumpling Town at Mandarin Chef

Photo courtesy Peter Mumford
"Mandarin Chef has been around now for 13 years in this one shotgun shack of a space, serving Sichuan chicken wings, dumplings and noodles to generations of college students and starving grubniks questing after that sweet hit of Chinese authenticity. It exists where it does because owners Sang and Lang Lam came here from Sichuan province 35 years ago, following a daughter who'd come to UW to learn to be a dentist and staying because a good cook (which Sang is) can work anywhere. They always wanted to open a restaurant of their own--a small place where Sang could do the work he'd been trained for, working as a cook in China, owning and running restaurants. They wanted to do it here so their children could get good educations, so they could protect the food traditions that they'd grown up with and introduce them to a whole new crowd of people.

It took time. Sang worked for years behind the swinging doors at Maple Leaf's Snappy Dragon before he and Lang could get a place of their own, before they could cook the food they wanted to cook and assemble the menu they'd dreamed of together. With Mandarin Chef, they got it. And the menu here is big. Seriously big. It reads in places like a high-speed collision between the "authenticity" that some foodies yearn for when sampling and dismissing American Chinese restaurants and the actual, true Chinese immigrant cuisine as practiced thousands of miles away from the alleys, districts and cities that birthed it.

Sang cooks sizzling rice soup with chicken, shrimp and colorful vegetables alongside seafood soup where everything (the scallop, the crab meat, the egg white and the vegetables) was white--like a Chinese blanquette de veau, a deliberate blankness of the gastronomic color wheel. He does clay pot tofu--an open-fire throwback to Sichuan peasant dishes that have been being cooked for hundreds of years in rural China--and kung pao chicken deeply spiced with chile peppers and tossed with a handful of peanuts. It's a dish that was invented in Sichuan, came out of the long, noble culinary tradition of that place. And yet there's nothing more American than kung pao these days. Nothing more identified with the American-Chinese immigrant canon."

The above is from "Mandarin Great," this week's review of Mandarin Chef.

Mandarin Chef made a big impression on me, and it all came to me in the best possible way: by surprise.

There is nothing about this tiny little space in the University District that would hint at either the excellence of portions of the menu or the backstory of the owners. But looks, as they say, can be deceiving, and here, the more I poked around, the deeper I delved, the more I found to like. It started with the dumplings. But where it went from there, I never could've guessed.

So check out the review of Mandarin Chef due on the stands (or online) tomorrow. And seriously, if you're looking to get a little dumpling love of your own before the crowds descend? Just trust me and check the place out tonight. Order the jiao-zi. Talk with Lang who works the floor.

I promise you won't be disappointed.

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