Old Reliable, New Burnish 

Mandarin Palace : The second-oldest Chinese restaurant in Richmond is well worth a trip over the river.

It was such a big hit that the restaurant quickly made it available to its regular customers — with 24 hours notice.

These days, of course, Peking duck is available upon demand even here in the hinterlands. But few places present the dish with more style than the Mandarin Palace, an old reliable on the South Side that has taken on a new burnish since it acquired a new owner last fall.

The new Mandarin Palace gives South-Siders a restaurant in a league with the West End's Full Key (a branch of the D. C. restaurant of the same name) and with a more gracious atmosphere. It's worth a trip across the river.

When Shanghai natives Frank K. Lam and his wife, Lucy, bought the Mandarin Palace last October from Jim Hui Zhao, they promised to retain the menu that had made the place popular for so many decades — it claims to be the second-oldest Chinese restaurant in Richmond, after the Joy Garden.

But the Lams didn't promise not to add their own touches. Thus the already laundry-list-long menu is fortified by semipermanent "chef specials" that lift the Mandarin above the ordinary.

Judith Gaines, who has been coming to the Mandarin since 1987, still loves the standard fare, but she can't resist the special e-fu noodles with the "triple delight" of beef, shrimp and chicken from the new section. "This place is better than ever," she said while expertly wielding the noodles with chopsticks.

You know you are in for a treat if you begin with an appetizer of delicate, meat-filled minidumplings ($4.25) swimming in an out-of-the-ordinary sauce that combines soy and ginger with an extra zing from a shot of chili. Our friend Sam pronounced it the best appetizer she had ever had in an Asian restaurant.

A combination of shrimp, scallops, beef, chicken and vegetables, served in a clay pot ($14) had been simmered in a brown Hunan sauce and was so flavorful that it even infused taste into the otherwise bland tofu.

The Singapore twin delight with shrimp and scallops ($14) arrived in a shell good enough to eat — it was made of a fried batter — in a sauce whose special ingredient was black beans.

A lamb entrée ($11) found the meat thinly sliced and cooked in green onions and scallions that nearly disguised its distinctive flavor — it could have passed for beef — and decorated with snow peas.

No shared Chinese meal is complete without a noodle dish, and ours was the e-fu that Mrs. Gaines raved about.

Don't be surprised if you wind up with one or more complimentary delights, such as fried bananas, plum wine and, naturally, a fortune cookie.

Owner Frank Lam is not a cook, but he has been around restaurants here and in California since emigrating from Hong Kong in1973, where he worked for an American import-export firm. He made his way to Richmond in 1984 to help a friend from Hong Kong open a restaurant near the airport, Grand Dynasty, in which Zhao was a partner. Over the years Lam worked as a waiter and assistant manager at the Peking on Grove Avenue and in the prep kitchen at Ukrop's, and once a week he still helps at the Grand Dynasty.

The new items are the work of chef Charlie Chao, who cooked 10 years in Hong Kong before moving to the states, where he prowled kitchens in New Jersey and New York for another decade before moving to Richmond last year.

Oh yes, that barbecued Peking duckling, crisp and golden brown, ($19) arrived beautifully layered on an oversized platter surrounded by slivers of hearts of scallions and a sweet spicy sauce, and of course, with those homemade pao ping, thin pancakes that Kissinger and Co. learned to fill with the other ingredients and devour in expert style. S

Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d' and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He last reviewed restaurants for Style in the late '80s.

Mandarin Palace ($$$)

2811 Stratford Hills Shopping Center


Lunch and dinner Sunday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Dinner Saturday 4:30 p.m.-11 p.m.


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