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Restaurant Review: Mandarin House

+ shameful
++ mediocre
+++ delightful
++++ amazing

Mandarin House ++

2604 Fifth Ave., 92103

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 am to 10 pm; Fridays and Saturdays, until 10:30 pm; and Sundays, 2 to 10 pm.

Cuisine: Mandarin and Szechwan

Budget impact: Low to moderate

When a friend called recently to ask for an inexpensive lunch recommendation in the Bankers Hill area, I steered him to the fiercely retro Mandarin House. A few hours later, he phoned back and chided me for the suggestion.

“Their Kung Pao chicken tasted like it came straight from a five-gallon drum,” he complained. “And the egg drop soup had no flavor!”

In Mandarin’s defense, I expressed regret that he didn’t sample the charry lo mein or the pineapple-soy-infused pork medallions or the novel “salt pepper chicken,” featuring thin slices of breast meat battered in seasoned flour, which go down as easily as potato chips. As for the Kung Pao chicken, call it pedestrian, but it’s cloaked in toothsome sauce the color of dark cherries and beats those steam-table versions swimming in feeble brown gravy.

Mandarin’s mediocrity can be blamed on its windowless, outdated atmosphere and a menu fossilized in the early 80s to match – precisely the two factors that keep me returning when trendier-than-thou dining rooms serving modern interpretations of comfort cuisine demand a rest.

An adherence to American-style Szechwan and Mandarin cooking disallows for culinary experimentation in this kitchen. The mildly piquant hot and sour soup that I encountered in my most recent visit, for instance, tasted no different than when I first slurped it 15 years ago. And I’ve learned over time that the vegetarian egg rolls are consistently crispier and brighter tasting compared to their standard counterparts filled with minced pork and veggies.

In what Epicures call “wok breath” to describe lo mien and other Chinese noodle dishes that lap up the smokiness of gas flames while cooking, Mandarin House succeeds. Sesame shrimp, however, ranks among the losers. The crustaceans seemingly vanish within bland, triangular-shaped cakes. A dab of screaming-hot Chinese mustard and superbly fruited plum sauce make them palatable, but they don’t fix the problem.

A favorite spectacle here is a cocktail called the flaming volcano. Tailored for two, it’s made of cherry brandy and pineapple juice, and served in a funky ceramic urn adorned with palm trees and Polynesian dancers. In the middle is a small well of fire fueled by 151 Proof Rum that provides a dose of kitschy fun to limber you up for your step back in time.