I was a teenager before I ate my first Chinese food. It was in a small restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the nation’s Capitol. In the late 40s my family got Chop Suey, Chow Mein or Egg Foo Yung in a white carton with a wire handle. The shop owner didn’t give us chopsticks, perhaps because he thought they might be too dangerous for the untrained to manage. Or maybe it was because no one had thought of packaging wooden sticks in a wrapper.
When I went to China in the 1983, I found their food was quite different than any I had eaten stateside. In the soups, for instance, there were a lot more UFOs (Unidentified Floating Objects). Dishes included octopus, eel, sea slugs, and enough mystery meat to supply a school cafeteria. I quit asking what I was eating, since the descriptions didn’t seem to translate well. (I had learned just enough Mandarin Chinese to confuse—and amuse—those with whom I tried to converse.) Besides, a flavorful sauce masked the unknown ingredients in most dishes.
Today I’m more inclined toward Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, or Malaysian foods. But occasionally I drive down Olive for dim sum or over to Mandarin House for what they call the Power Lunch buffet—as I did recently.
Mandarin is cavernous—430 seats—but the space is pleasantly decorated and the buffet geared for the Western palate. The warm jasmine tea was especially satisfying as I watched the snowflakes fluttering outside the window. While I selected from the ample buffet, the accommodating folks at Mandarin also cook to order for those who know their way around a Chinese menu and want more authentic dishes.
I smiled when I spotted Chow Mein on the menu and remembered how adventuresome it once felt to order such an “exotic” dish. Today Chinese restaurants tantalize us with such western favorites as General Tso’s Chicken, Kung Pao, Moo Shu Pork, Vegetable Lo Mein, Orange Beef, Pot Stickers and Egg Rolls.
Asian cuisine in the Lou has expanded to include such delicacies as Korean Barbecue, bowls of Vietnamese Pho, Bun, and Bahn Mi sandwiches, Pad Thai, and Malysian Beef Rendang.
Even so, I never eat Asian foods without thinking of my “Chop Suey days” and my mother’s early attempts to duplicate the unfamiliar dish. She couldn’t of course, without the availability of the proper ingredients or even a proper recipe. Remembering her efforts often inspires me to toss some leftovers in a wok and cook them together for a quick, stir fry meal like the one shown above.
Mandarin House, 9150 Overland Plaza. Open: Sun.-Thurs. 11a-9p; Fri. & Sat. 11a-10p. (MOVED TO OLIVE BLVD.)