Rediscovering the Pot-Stickers of Chinatown : Dumpling Taste Still Alive in Northridge
The original Mandarin Deli was an essential stop on any tour of Chinatown, a sticky-table dive where the dumplings were so good and so cheap that few people I knew ever bothered to try anything else.
The savory pork-stuffed pot-stickers, especially, tasted like the quintessence of fried food: crisp, flat and slightly burned on the surface that had touched the hot pan, soft and rounded underneath, seemingly greaseless but bursting with the flavor of hot oil, addictive in the way great Chinese food can be.
One would rush to down these dumplings before they cooled, dragging each of them across a dab of hot chili oil mixed with a squirt of vinegar and gobbling it shark-like. One large order was never enough, even when supplemented with a plateful of terrific boiled dumplings stuffed with fish and chopped Chinese greens.
Unfortunately, the mutability of Chinese restaurants being what it is, the dumplings took a steep nose-dive in quality about a year ago, and my visits to the place grew less and less frequent. I found other dumplings in other Chinese delis (you know, the small restaurants specializing in noodles, cured meats and queer Chinese salads), discovered wonderful scallion pancakes at Dumpling Master and the “chive box” at the superlative Deli World Cafe in Monterey Park. But no dumpling was ever quite so delicious as those pot-stickers.
For one reason or another, though I knew that the single deli had become a small chain, it had never occurred to me that the good cook--or several of them--might be working in the branch locations. The common prejudice against suburban versions of city restaurants is a well-founded one. But, after a few slurps from a particularly disappointing bowl of Vietnamese noodles in Reseda the other day, a visit to the Mandarin Deli in Northridge seemed like a pretty good idea. It was.
Ice-cold seaweed salad--julienne strips of the crunchy sea plant as elusively briny as a fresh Belon oyster--is slightly sweet and sour, hot with slivers of raw garlic and utterly delightful. Sublime chilled strips of beef tripe are chewy and aromatic with soy and anise, tripe even menudo -phobes might like. I loved bean curd that had been pressed and marinated until its texture resembled that of Gouda cheese, and aromatic peanuts, soaked with diced celery and star anise in a soy/rice-wine solution until they seemed more like some new, bean-like vegetable than any kind of nut.
Jellyfish, Kim Chi
Cold dishes, in fact, are all wonderful here, though some are a bit more--er--specialized than some might prefer: a ginger-scented heap of shredded jellyfish, more like crisp noodles than you might expect; the spicy fermented cabbage called kim chi , not as pungent as the Korean variety; julienne daikon that tastes like a sweet Chinese version of cole slaw, only better. If you’re squeamish, try san tung chicken salad, which is nothing more than boneless skin-on hacked chicken marinated with crunchy chunks of cucumber and might well be the best, simplest chicken salad in town.
Noodle dishes are good, too, especially if you specify “special” noodles, which are wheaty linguine-type noodles made fresh at the restaurant each day (otherwise, you’ll get something akin to good, store-bought spaghetti) and come in portions large enough to serve four as a side dish. Pork chop noodle soup is no euphemism here--noodles in a dark, cilantro-spiked pork broth are topped with a whole pan-fried chop whose crunchy crust tastes of black pepper. The longer it stays submerged, the more its flavors blend with those of the soup, and the contrast of the textures is superb.
I liked noodles with shredded pork and pungent Chinese pickled cabbage in a lighter pork broth. Beef stew soup noodle was gamy and slightly unpleasant smelling, as if meat from a very old steer had been simmering for days. Spicy chili soup noodles are every bit as spicy as the name implies; I burned my tongue two different ways.
And the restaurant prepares noodles you may not have seen before: “ground flour” noodles, tiny lumps of dough much like the German dumplings called spaetzle, dotting the best, thickest egg-drop soup you’ll ever have; “square noodles,” two-inch-square sheets of al dente pasta, float in a similar soup.
Mandarin Deli’s menu also lists the usual Chinese stuff such as sweet and sour pork, Mongolian beef and kung pao chicken, which you’ll have to ask someone else about. I was too busy stuffing myself with crisp, doughy fried pancakes stuffed with minced scallions . . . and order after order of the pan-fried pot-stickers that I’d craved for so long. Sorry.
Mandarin Deli, 9351 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 993-0122. Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday. Parking in rear. MC and V accepted, $15 minimum. Beer and wine. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$16.