Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebration, so “Gung Hay Fat Choy” to all. As Elaine Truong of Mandarin Gourmet explained, the phrase “means ‘wishing you good luck and a lot of good fortune.’ ”
As far as good food is concerned, Elaine and her husband, Eric, have been serving up Hunan and Szechuan cuisine at their San Luis Obispo restaurant since 1992 — and lately they’ve added some Vietnamese flavors as well.
Located in a corner of the Laguna Village Shopping Center, the restaurant offers easy parking and ample seating, most of it in cozy booths for one to four people, but a few larger tables can easily hold groups.
The sprawling Mandarin Gourmet menu boasts well over 100 items, plus daily specials, so most everyone can find something to enjoy whether they like steamed or stir-fried, mild or spicy, vegetarian or meaty.
Recent popular additions include fried brown rice dishes with your choice of proteins or just vegetables, and tried-and-true favorites run the gamut from sizzling rice soup to Singapore rice noodles, orange chicken to Peking duck, curry shrimp to Mongolian beef.
Among the signature “Chef’s Suggestions” are the crispy Szechuan eggplant, the pan-fried noodle combination that arrives on a still sizzling plate, and the visually delightful Treasure Basket — a mix of chicken, beef, shrimp, scallops and vegetables served in a nest of just fried noodles.
More than 20 items are available as lunch combinations served with a spring roll, fried wonton, fried rice and a fortune cookie.
In addition, two or more diners can enjoy one of the “Family Dinner” lineups that might include soups, additional entrée dishes and almond cookies depending on which option you choose.
Despite the breadth and depth of the Mandarin Gourmet menu, the Truongs pride themselves on the consistency of their dishes.
No matter which chef might be in the kitchen, your barbecued pork, egg foo young or sesame chicken will taste the same each time you order it, and often it will be Eric doing the cooking.
A veteran of several local restaurants — even including Mandarin Gourmet before he and Elaine took it over — he’s started to introduce some dishes from the Vietnamese side of his family, most notably the traditional dish known as “pho.”
Pho (best pronounced by non-Vietnamese speakers as “fuh”) is an increasingly popular soup based on white rice noodles and a wonderfully flavorful clear beef broth.
The most typical way of preparing it is with very thin slices of raw beef that are placed on top of the noodles and then cooked by the steaming broth being poured over them. From there, you adjust your own bowl of pho to taste and texture with additions of bean sprouts, jalapeño peppers, Thai basil, hoisin sauce, Sriracha (a spicy chile/garlic sauce) or even just a squeeze of lime.
As expansive as the menu is, the Mandarin Gourmet kitchen doesn’t opt for many shortcuts.
With the exception of items such as some sauces or stocks that need time to develop flavor, everything is cooked to order.
That approach not only means that factors such as spiciness can be adjusted, but special dietary requests such as no MSG, vegan, or gluten-free can be accommodated as well. (A gluten-free soy sauce is also available upon request — most contain wheat).
“Everything is made with very fresh ingredients,” said Elaine, “which our customers really like and appreciate.”
As for the Truongs, “we’re happy to have so many local return customers who are like family — some are now bringing their children here, the next generation! We really love this town.”