Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Mandarin Garden’s not-so-secret menu

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-8de69274-3097-9bc9-1803-549b035bbb61">The Mandarin Garden, a Chinese restaurant on 4th street, has more to its menu than meets the eye. Five years ago, owner Pai Yang launched her ‘secret’ Chinese menu, a weekly, handwritten menu of traditional Chinese and Taiwanese dishes that come from Yang’s childhood. After learning about this menu from a friend of mine from China, a regular at the restaurant, I wanted to learn more about the story behind this ‘secret’ menu. Having little experience with traditional Chinese cuisine myself, I was excited to taste Yang’s food and, in the process, learn about the food’s cultural history.

The regular menu holds no surprises, with all of the Americanized classics we’ve grown to love. (Though nowhere near traditional, the cream cheese wontons are terrific.) Yang recognized that this menu reflects the Americanized version of Chinese gastronomy that has become widely known. “That’s considered their comfort Chinese food,” she noted, mentioning that Americans are brought up eating food not completely reflective of true Chinese cuisine, yet nonetheless expect it when they go out.

Yang had always wanted to create a menu that reflects her culinary roots, and after nearly 40 years in the restaurant business, she found an opportunity to do so. Five years ago, she noticed a marked uptick in Chinese students attending both Carleton and St. Olaf. In response, she decided to create a little taste of home for them.

“What I try to offer is Chinese food that tastes good…like what Mom or Grandma used to make,” she stated as we talked over a cup of tea in Mandarin Garden’s dining room.

Originally, the menu was devised as a small addition to the regular operation of the restaurant that she runs with her husband, Chongming Yang. It began as a way to bring some sense of familiarity to Chinese students finding themselves in a completely new environment. But it quickly grew to exceed her modest expectations.

“Before I knew it, this started growing. Students love [the Chinese menu],” Ms. Yang said, emphasizing a lack of rice in the dining halls as a major attraction to her menu early on. This rising popularity then set off a chain reaction, with Chinese students bringing in their friends who grew up with similar cuisines, and spread word of the menu to the wider collegiate population. Today, she finds herself occasionally translating the menu for students and townies alike, something she is happy to do for anyone who might not read Chinese.

Despite its growing popularity, though, Yang intends to keep this menu ‘secret’ by not adding it to the daily menu. “Do I really want to go public with this? I don’t think so at this point. Just because I’ve noticed there are still customers that have a certain reservation about trying something new,” she explained, emphasizing that certain traditional preparations, such as serving fish whole (head and all), are unfamiliar to many American diners.

The Chinese menu differs in nearly every aspect from the permanent menu. It changes weekly, reflecting the freshest ingredients Yang can find in the market. Each Sunday, she drives up to the Twin Cities to buy the freshest produce, meats and fish available. Then, after all the ingredients are bought, Yang plans her menu for that week.

Growing up in a Taiwanese compound populated by families from mainland China, Yang learned early on how to marry Taiwanese ingredients with mainland culinary skills and ideas, giving her a unique perspective on the rich gastronomical heritage of her homeland.

During dinner a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sampling some dishes off of this ‘secret’ menu. Beef noodle soup, originally a mainland-Chinese creation, was adopted by the Taiwanese after the influx of mainlanders due to political reasons in the late 20th century. It’s also Yang’s most memorable dish, which she makes by simmering beef bones in an aromatic broth base for two days, creating a broth laden with beefy umami. The velvety stock cooks shredded beef, so gentle and tender that it’s almost feather-like, with broth punctuating every bite. The noodles are a necessary addition to add heft to the soup, but are in no way distracting from the main show.

After the revelatory beef noodle soup, I was let down by the marinated duck wings and feet. Served cold, they felt more like gelatin than meat, with little to no flavor to my palate. These were quickly followed by salt and pepper chicken which, though simple, was absolutely delectable. The name of the dish left nothing to the imagination—it was, quite literally, strips of chicken encrusted with a gentle coating of coarse salt and black pepper. The hefty dosage of salt created a perfectly juicy chicken, which is no small feat. Despite the heavy seasoning, pure chicken flavor shone through, highlighted by subtle hints of salt and pepper.

Perhaps the best part of the meal, however, was Mr. Yang’s homemade hot sauce. Meant specifically for the beef noodle soup, the spice and complexity of flavors begged for another bite, until I found myself dunking every element of my meal into the sauce’s dark depths. Made from homegrown habanero peppers, curry powder and sugar, the hot sauce starts with a dark, intense chili flavor, which then gives way to subtle sweetness, almost fig-like in character, with a pang of heat at the very end.

The food and the flavors are very conservative, perhaps by design. Yang focuses on creating a comfortable dining experience rather than experimenting with cutting-edge flavors and techniques. And with this ‘secret’ menu, it works like a charm. According to my two dinner companions, both international students from China, the dinner tasted just like home. For me, it was an eye-opening and palate-expanding experience.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *