At times like these – the holidays and the soon-to-come long summer season – even Laguna Beach residents here can feel like a number. Most of the restaurants can’t help themselves – they’re simply overrun. But, as a 14-year resident … and as many residents who have perched here much longer than I have … we still have a difficult time understanding sometimes.
It’s why it was so refreshing this week to hear Aaron Fu, the son of North Laguna’s dynasty, Mandarin King Restaurant, tell me that we’re the family that has made their family tick.
“We’ve managed to stay here for 30 years because the Laguna residents have become our family,” he says. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve watched my Mom hugging people and knowing their special orders before they open their mouths because these are the people who’ve kept coming back and have always supported us.”
Obviously, Mandarin King means something to the community, too. On Christmas Day last week, in true holiday movie form, the restaurant was absolutely packed. “It was crazy!” says Aaron. “It was so non-stop, we didn’t have time to eat. We didn’t even have time to sit down. We finally did a drive through at McDonalds at midnight on the way home.”
Chinese Food Served The Way You Want It
It’s no surprise that people continue to crowd their way to Mandarin King. Step foot in the 30-year old operation of Mandarin King and you feel special. I’ve watched them greet guest after guest with absolute grace. And the grace doesn’t stop there … Mandarin King knows how to throw down a serious Chinese food experience.
For me, it always starts with their signature dish, Sizzling Rice. With a chicken broth base, the chefs cram chicken white meat, shrimp , snow peas, zucchini, mushrooms and water chestnuts into a steamy, fragrant broth, letting it simmer all day. Then, they flash-fry dried rice and bring the two separate entities to the table. They combine at tableside, the hot oil residue in the rice creating the “sizzling” effect as it piles its way into the broth. Simply delectable.
With more than 65 main dishes on the menu and added soups, rices and salads, it seems there’s easily something for everyone, but Aaron assures me that every dish is easily customized.
“I guess you could say we’re Traditional American Chinese,” says Aaron, who is now completing his Doctorate in physical therapy, but helps the family on weekends and holidays. “We’re ‘traditional’ to the point of introducing great Asian vegetables like Chinese mustard greens and age-old spices, but we’re ‘American’ in that we custom create every order according to what a person wants.
“That’s especially important in Laguna,” he says. “People here are so interesting. They ended up in this area because they knew what they wanted … and they know what they want when they eat, too. It helps us constantly change and adapt new ways of looking at traditional Chinese food.”
Well said, Aaron.
His parents, Priscilla and Glenn Fu, who were, respectively, electrical engineer and computer programmer prior to jumping into the restaurant biz, have created an inherent service mentality that not only extends to their sons, Aaron and Steven, but to the long-time staff.
A Family Serving Families
Mandarin King is only closed four days of the year – Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving and Superbowl. Chef Tan has worked the other 361 days of the year for more than 20 years here at Mandarin King. Chef Gui has done the same for nearly 15 years.
“We grew up calling all the staff here ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ because they’ve all been family to us, too,” says Aaron.
With their mission statement focused on “tradition, community and family,” Mandarin King continues to provide family-style dining at every table. “We incorporate that old-fashioned family value into everything we do,” say Aaron.
While guests can freely share their over-large portions with friends and family, they can order food any ol’ way they want – gluten free, low sodium, low oil, less vegetables, more vegetables, vegetarian, vegan and … of course …never any MSG.
Each ticket for every table is still hand written and posted in the kitchen on a revolving wheel. “If we had a POS system, we’d go crazy,” says Aaron, “We’d be entering a thousand different items like ‘John’s Kung Pao Chicken without the chicken’ or ‘Debra’s Sizzling Rice minus these three items and these two added items,” says Aaron.
“Everyone deserves a custom meal the way they want it, and that’s what we provide,” he says.
Feeding Our School Kids Every Week
Even the Laguna Beach School District asks that Mandarin King feed their elementary school children a certain way. For more than a decade, the Mandarin family has been providing Tuesday’s hot lunch option – the House Special Chicken – to more than 350 students.
Each Tuesday morning, more than 200 pounds of fresh, white meat chicken is diced and simmered in a mild, low-sodium sauce with add-in veggies and rice on the side. “In the initial months, we tried different vegetables to see what the kids liked most, and we stick with that now … for the most part,” says Aaron with a bit of a grin.
“It’s our best selling dish in the restaurant, too, so we figure the kids must be saying good things about it at home.”
As he chats, Mom Priscilla arrives with Cream Cheese Wontons, one of their tried-and-true best sellers on the appetizer menu.
“What we serve is what we love to eat,” she says with a smile. This is good eating, assuredly, as these over-stuffed treasures are just the right amount of crisp outer shell and decadent richness.
From there, it’s a pile-on of food.
Best Sellers For a Reason
Aaron confesses to loving the Honey Walnut Shrimp dish as a kid long before it arrived on the menu. He ate so many pounds of the stuff that his parents and “uncle” chefs finally relented, making it a permanent fixture on the menu.
What a relief this is to the rest of us (I assure you), as this dish is spectacularly rich and coddling. The shrimp is flash fried, then stir fired with cream sauce made of mayonnaise, coconut milk, lemon and spices. It’s finished with candied walnuts and a side of broccoli and carrots (just to make you feel, uhmm, healthier).
“There aren’t a lot of mayonnaise based recipes in Asia,” say Aaron. “But, like I said, we’re Traditional American, and it sure tastes great in this recipe.”
I surface from my Honey Walnut Shrimp daze to Mongolian Beef and King Pao Chicken, another two best selling dishes at Mandarin.
The Mongolian Beef is simply sauced and stir -fried with green and white onions. The beef is very tender and flavorful, almost whisper thin in its slices.
Where the Mongolian Beef is sublime, the Kung Pao Chicken is a robust pile of white chicken, peanuts, water chestnuts, ginger, green onions and plenty of red chili peppers tucked here and there. I like this dish – the spice isn’t too overwhelming; the underlying flavors really have a chance to shine.
While I didn’t have the opportunity at this last visit, Aaron says the Spicy Peppered Fish is a great seller as well. The team serves up file of sole with fluffy breading, then stir fries with green peppers, jalapeno, onions and white pepper and an in-house secret sauce soy on the side.
With a bright new year dawning, the Fu family assures me that they’re not going anywhere. Since the two boys, Aaron and younger brother, Steven, moved the restaurant into the technological age a few years ago with website and social media, business only continues to increase.
“None of us is going anywhere for a long time,” says Aaron. “We’re in it to end it … all together as a team, as a family … for our extended family.”
Mandarin King Restaurant is at 1223 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Call (949) 494-8992 for reservations or take-out.