RESTAURANT REVIEW : New Spot, Same Great Dumplings

Mandarin Deli has just moved from its Northridge location to bigger, brighter digs a few blocks away. That's great news for just about everyone around here.

The new location, a foursquare building painted a pale, soothing green on the inside, is far roomier and more comfortable than the last one, and the service is more cheerful than ever. Almost everything in this engaging room is green: the tile floor, the curtains, even the shiny new booths colored a dark sea green. For emphasis there are potted green plants everywhere.

Mandarin Deli, in case you do not know, is one of the best noodle and dumpling houses in greater Los Angeles. What was once little more than a Chinatown storefront has grown into a four-restaurant empire. But although most people go for the pan-fried meat dumplings (a.k.a. pot stickers), or soups thick with fat, chewy, hand-rolled noodles, I have discovered something I like even better at this restaurant: the cold dishes.

The new Mandarin Deli devotes two whole sections of its menu to these dishes. One, "cold salad dish," contains a selection of pickled meats and vegetables from shredded radish to preserved egg. In the other, "cold cut dish," you find smoked, marinated and aromatic items such as sliced pork leg or wine chicken.

Combination cut dish-large (I think they forgot the word "cold") is the best introduction. While it is being prepared, ask for a dish of cold, aromatic peanuts to go with the beverages. These peanuts, boiled in anise and water, are about the most refreshing snack food I have ever tried. The cooking makes them swell up, become fragrant and go pop instead of crunch when you bite into them.

You won't have long to wait for the combination dish--which offers a little for everyone. Aromatic sliced beef is soft and greaseless, cut into thin slices that melt in the mouth. Lu dan, preserved egg flavored with little more than salt, make a perfect foil for the beef. There is also cold shredded tofu with soy flavor; cold, crunchy pig's ear, which tastes rather like pork rinds; wonderfully soft, flavorful beef tripe (that I'm convinced would make converts out of the most squeamish eaters); and, in the center of the plate, a mound of cool, crunchy lightly pickled radish. At $8.25 it is enough for four, and one of the great bargains in Los Angeles.

But if it's dumplings you insist upon, you won't be disappointed. My favorites are the steamed meat dumplings--long boats of dough pinched around a juicy filling. Douse them with soy, vinegar and some of the house chili sauce. They are irresistible.

The better-known pan-fried meat dumplings are good too. Except for the cooking method, they are the same as the steamed variety. Ours were not thoroughly browned the way I like them, but otherwise were good enough for a training film. The filling is light and juicy.

Unlike the smaller Mandarin Delis, this one offers a whole variety of entrees. Sliced beef with garlic chili sauce is one of the best--tender beef in a wonderfully oily sauce full of minced garlic cloves and murderous red chili pods. Eat a whole pod if you dare. Celery with bean cake is delightful, too. The celery absorbs all the flavors of the sauce, yet loses none of its crunch.

Stewed duck leg, a sort of warm confit that just falls off the bone, is another irresistible dish. I'm not sure why it's listed in the menu's cold-cut section. Noodle with spicy chili soup is another killer, an enormous bowl of fiery red broth filled with homemade noodles and shredded pork. And do try the onion pancake--a griddled, layered bread that is filled with scallions.

So say hello to another Mandarin Deli. Let's hope the chain keeps expanding; at this rate we may all have one in the neighborhood.

Recommended dishes: dumplings, $4.25; noodle with spicy chili soup, $4.75; combination cut dish, $8.25; sliced beef with garlic chili sauce, $6.50.

Mandarin Deli, 9305 Reseda Blvd., Northridge; (818) 993-0122. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two (food only) $15-$25.

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