RESTAURANT REVIEW : For the Best of Uncle Tai's, Tell 'em to Hold the Sugar

Chinese food is popular nearly all over the world. There are food pundits who think this is due to magical universal properties in Chinese cuisine.

Actually, what's happening is that Chinese cooks pride themselves on learning what the denizens of their adopted countries like to eat and then catering to it. Mexico, for example, abounds with restaurants where even the mildest Cantonese dishes contain their fair share of chilies. In Japan, where salt is a favorite seasoning, neighborhood Chinese restaurants use salty soy sauce to utter distraction.

You soon suspect that the new Uncle Tai's Mandarin Gourmet in Encino takes the same kind of pride in its depth of understanding. This restaurant's cuisine seems founded on the idea that sugar is the foodstuff Americans simply cannot live without.

If so, they're wrong. A number of the dishes here are prepared in sweet, sticky sauces that resemble everything from orange marmalade to treacle pudding, and unless you are into eccentric desserts, you are likely to find these dishes hard to swallow. I did.

Fortunately, the kitchen prepares several tasty dishes that easily refute this theoretical misalliance. The house sauteed spinach with bamboo, for one, is a delight: lightly cooked spinach leaves and big, meaty chunks of fresh bamboo. Sliced lamb Hunan style, another soundly prepared specialty, is thinly sliced sauteed lamb in a thick, peppery sauce with red pepper and onion and tastes properly gamy and spicy. And lo mein, pan-fried noodles with barbecued pork and crispy Chinese vegetables, dances across the teeth exactly like noodles found in any corner luncheonette in Chinatown.

But it takes more than educated guessing to avoid the sugar blues here. Look past the appetizers and salads on this menu for a moment, and notice the menu's original format. Seven styles of preparation are listed (kung pao, Hunan garlic, Sichuan orange, black bean, hot braised, jade green and sweet and pungent), each sauce listed in combination with different meats or seafoods. Jade green is the lightest, a mild garlic sauce with snow peas and broccoli, and only slightly sweet. Black bean is the saltiest, containing less sugar still. And kung pao, if ordered extra spicy, is hot enough to make you forget that it is too sweet. All the other sauces are so sweet they make your teeth hurt.

When you are ready to order, tell the server you want dishes made with as little sugar as possible. Now look back to the section titled "Appetizers and Dim Sum." These dishes are the most authentic and honestly prepared that the restaurant serves.

Onion pancake, a wonderful pan-fried bread that you pull apart in steamy layers, can be delicious here. Just make sure it is made to order, because it loses its magic when reheated. Shrimp siu mai, Cantonese dumplings with a minced filling combining shrimp and pork, are also made in the traditional style. The skin is tender, and the filling is fine and fatty. And the pot sticker dumplings, with their crisp fried skin and juicy pork filling, are the most satisfying of all.

Forget the salads altogether (the dressings are even sweeter than sauces here) and stick to soups, such as a piquant vegetarian hot and sour. Noodle and rice dishes are best when simplest. Just duck whenever you see the word sauce in one of the menu descriptions.

That said, there are many things to like about this place. The elegant surroundings are perfectly suited to casual, lighthearted dining, and service is uncommonly outgoing and pleasant. Booths are plush and comfortable, and the tables are clothed in soft green. The restaurant even has an attractive bar where you can sip wine by the glass or nibble on hors d'oeuvres.

But don't get carried away with your nibbling. Everyone knows that too many sweets before dinner can spoil your appetite.

Recommended dishes: pot stickers, $5.25; shrimp siu mai , $5.50; barbecued pork lo mein , $6.50; sliced lamb Hunan style, $11.50; sauteed spinach with bamboo shoots, $7.50.

Uncle Tai's Mandarin Gourmet 2, 16656 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-2865. Lunch every day except Sunday, starting at 11:30 a.m.; dinner every day, weekdays 4 to 10:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking in lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$40.

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