Thursday, December 29, 2016

Fulfilling Chinese Experience at Mandarin Terrace?

Mandarin Terrace
24291 Avenida De La Carlota
Laguna Hills, CA 92653

It has been a pretty long time since we have had some Chinese food. When the weather turns colder, and it gets a lot closer to Christmas, I start to get a hankering for some good old-fashioned Chinese cuisine. Then, after reading Brad Johnson's top 20 Chinese restaurant piece in the OC Register, it got me thinking even more about Chinese. Unfortunately, there were only three places south of Irvine on his list, and we did not want to venture too far on this particular evening. So we struck out on our own and headed to Mandarin Terrace in Laguna Hills.

Food people will know exactly where Mandarin Terrace is because it's right next door to the wildly popular, and one of the best breakfast joints in OC, Break of Dawn. If you are still unclear as to where this restaurant is located, you might also know this shopping center as adjacent to the being refurbished Laguna Hills Mall, and in the same parking lot as Trader Joe's, El Torito, and the awful Woody's Diner. Now that we have our bearings, let's check out this joint.

Mandarin Terrace was very bright inside, and really had an old school charm to it. They have plenty of comfy booths, with many other tables situated in the center of the restaurant. We arrived here pretty close to 6:30 on a recent Sunday evening. In this area, bordering the retirement mecca of Laguna Woods, we did not expect this restaurant to be bustling with customers, but there were about half of the 16 tables occupied on this evening.

The menu here is pretty standard for an Americanized-Chinese restaurant. They offer beef, chicken, seafood, duck, and vegetarian entrees, along with appetizers, soups, and noodles. Being this close to Leisure World, Mandarin Terrace entices its older customers with lunch specials and an early bird special, which runs daily from 3 to 6, and even though we got here closer to 6:30, they had no problem with allowing me to partake of this deal. After placing our order with our very nice waitress, we patiently waited for our food. Here's how it all came out for us.

Right after we ordered, we were brought out these Chow Mein Noodles with Spicy Chinese Mustard Sauce and a Sweet and Sour Sauce. I guess this is the Chinese equivalent to having chips and salsa in a Mexican restaurant. The noodles were okay, as they kind of seemed a little past their prime, but they were free, so no big deal. The sauces were pretty standard, and like others I have had in Chinese restaurants.

My early bird special included my entree choice, an appetizer, sweet and sour pork or chicken, rice, and my choice of soup. I went with this Hot and Sour soup over the egg flower soup. This version is made with seafood, and it added a good depth of flavor, which I presume I would not have gotten with the egg flower choice. This soup was a little light on the sour tinge but was still pretty solid.

The early bird menu says that you get your choice of a wonton, egg roll, or green salad, but they brought me out both a Fried Wonton and an Egg Roll. Score. These were both kind of humdrum. The fried wonton was fried nicely, but contained about a dime sized piece of meat, which might have been beef or chicken, but was so small I could not discern what it was. The egg roll was better, but still not great. It was filled with plenty of veggies, but lacked any kind of flavor, until I used some of the sweet and sour sauce from earlier. Pretty mediocre appetizers.

Katie has been pining to go to Din Tai Fung in Costa Mesa, and I think she ordered these Steamed Dumplings ($8.95) to give me a little hint to make plans to go there. These were pretty good, but the outside was a little too rubbery. The inside had a good amount of pork in them, but they needed a bit more liquid inside. I enjoyed the sauces that came with these, but could not really tell the difference between them, other than one included lemon grass. I promise I'll make plans to hit up Din Tai Fung soon Katie.

Here was the rest of my early bird special, including my entree choice on this evening, the House Special Beef ($13.95). This was actually pretty good, although the beef could have been more tender. The sauce used here was kind of a cross between the one used to make Mongolian beef and a less citrusy orange chicken. The menu made no mention of the broccoli that surrounded this so they might have just wanted me to get my daily vegetable requirement. The fried rice was not greasy at all, but the trade off with that was that it was kind of devoid of flavor. The tiny side of sweet and sour pork was pretty unremarkable and tasted like it could have come out of the freezer section at the supermarket. A decent meal, but nothing that wowed.

No, we suddenly did not run out, and go to a Mexican restaurant in the middle of dinner, this was Katie's choice on this evening, the Chicken Moo Shu ($11.55), which was prepared tables side. I should have taken a picture of our waitress making this, but I was not so sure she would have liked me photographing her handy work. She did an admirable job of filling the pan cakes with the chicken, egg, and vegetable mixture. This Asian-tinged burrito was not really my cup of tea. It was a little plain tasting and needed a sauce to make this pop. Katie liked this alright, but even she admitted that she would forgo this on future visits to Mandarin Terrace.

When the check came, we were presented with the customary Fortune Cookies, along with two orange wedges, and some pineapple. A very nice gesture.

Mandarin Terrace fulfilled my craving for Chinese food on this winter evening, but it failed to impress us enough to want to return based on what we had on this visit. I did think that the value for the money was pretty strong here, as my early bird special with all of that food was less than $15. As long as you enjoy pedestrian Chinese cuisine, and don't want to spend a lot of money for it, this might be your spot. I do have to admit that our waitress was very nice, and made us feel very welcome. A very comforting environment, but unfortunately the food did not equal it.

Out of five mustangs, (because that's the mascot of Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Florida), five being best to zero being worst, Mandarin Terrace gets 2 mustangs.

For more information about Mandarin Terrace, head to their website here:

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