by Jacqueline Rupp
There’s a reason why Mandarin Garden in Willow Grove has been satisfying customers for almost 30 years and is still packing them in. Owner Michael Wei, who also owns Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill, Yangming in Bryn Mawr and Nectar in Berwyn, has obviously set the bar high for each restaurant. Check out restaurant review websites like yelp.com and opentable.com, and you will find a consistent pattern of rave reviews for each one.
Wei, 72, is quite an American Dream story. Originally from Taiwan, where he was a newspaper reporter, Wei came to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri, a time he recalls fondly. He earned his way through school working in a Chinese restaurant and even after graduation found himself in Washington, D.C., a law clerk by day but working in a Chinese restaurant at night.
When his uncle, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Temple University, pointed out a restaurant for sale in Elkins Park, Wei jumped at the chance to “scoop” it up. The Wei restaurant dynasty was born, and almost 30 years later, it’s still thriving. Former TV news anchor, Larry Kane, gave Mandarin Garden a big boost many years ago when he described the restaurant as his favorite place to dine.
On our visit to Mandarin Garden last week, Wei was just introducing his new summer specials menu. Running all summer long, it is a seasonal offering of eight specially prepared dishes that incorporate fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs to complement traditional proteins. Our meal began with the Dumpling Duo ($7.50) and the Grand Marnier Shrimp ($8.50). The dumplings, Chinese chive pork and kimchi beef, are seared perfectly to create a delicate and delicious treat.
Entrees on the seasonal menu include Orange Duck ($18.95) and Mandarin Soft Shell Crabs ($23.95). We dined on the Szechuan Hot Bean Chicken ($12.95), a spicy dish with crispy chicken and a hint of fennel. The heat of the chicken was balanced out nicely by the mango and grilled green pepper and onion in the dish. The Pan-Seared Branzino Filet ($18.95) in a white wine and lemon sauce was not only beautifully presented, but the Mediterranean sea bass was seasoned and cooked to perfection. Mango and pineapple added a fresh, sunny, summer flavor to the entree.
What originally set Mandarin Garden apart from other Chinese restaurants at the time it opened was Wei’s focus on Mandarin style cooking, rather than the more common Cantonese style pervasive in this region. Characterized by the generous use of egg noodles and rice, hoisin, chili paste and sweet-based sauces, Mandarin style tends to be more spicy and not as heavy or dependent on frying as other American Chinese cuisines.
The restaurant serves lunch Monday through Saturday and dinner daily. The lunch menu offers a choice of over 20 entrees, all served with fried rice and hot tea, in the modest price range of $4.95 to $8.75. The dinner menu is famous for its dumplings, Peking duck and one of Wei’s personal favorites, Shrimp with Honey Walnuts. There are many familiar items on the menu but many surprises as well. Vegetarian and tofu choices are available and for those seeking a culinary adventure, there is the Chef’s Surprise Dinner. This tasting menu, at $22.95 per person, gives a gourmet sampling without the need to study the menu. Offering a full wine list and mixed drinks, the bar also features several Chinese beers. And for dessert, the homemade Mud Pie is memorable.
Mandarin Garden is located at 91 York Rd. (at Davisville) in Willow Grove. More information at 215-657-3993 or www.mandaringardenrestaurant.com.