If there's one quality that distinguishes the best Chinese restaurants from those that are merely good, it's the sauces.
In those top few places, which are not necessarily the most expensive ones, the sauces are complex and subtle. They're applied with restraint, and they're fundamentally different from one another -- what dresses the shrimp Peking style doesn't look or taste like what's on the mixed vegetables.
At the other Chinese restaurants, sauces tend to be overly thickened with cornstarch and overapplied, and they taste and look remarkably alike (dark brown seems to be the favorite color). The Mandarin Inn falls in the second category.
But read on. Despite the boring sauces, this place is more than worth a try. The prices are commendably low and the portions generous, the service is sharp and attentive, the quality of the raw materials is high, and some dishes -- ones that are unsauced or minimally sauced -- can be top-notch.
Besides, this is an unusually good-looking restaurant, with blond wood furniture, soft lighting, attractive smoked-mirror walls, and good acoustics. And the servers seem to be conscientious about asking the chef to omit MSG when they're asked.
Among the appetizers, the steamed dumplings are flawless, with tender wrappers and a lovely filling of garlicky, ginger-laced pork, finely ground. Shrimp toast, too, is very good, the frying oil tastes fresh and the shrimp-to-bread ratio is properly high. There's also an unusual appetizer called curry beef rak, similar to Indian samosas, in which spiced ground beef is stuffed in tender, triangular pillows of a flaky wheat crust.
Although there aren't many noodle dishes here, they're outstanding, with beautifully firm, chewy noodles, a lot of meat or shrimp and a minimum of oil.
Another winner is san shein wor bar, a big platter of tender beef, plump shrimp, scallops, chicken and bright, lively vegetables in an unobtrusive sauce. The combination is mixed with superheated rice at the table in a dramatic eruption of fragrant steam. Again, it's a bargain at $8.95.
Vegetables are admirably done here. If it weren't for an overabundance of an overly thickened, overly flavored sauce, the mixed vegetables would be tops. However, Szechuan-style cabbage, virtually swimming in a thick sweet soup of a sauce, is a loser.
The restaurant's rendition of Peking duck is superlative, its skin done just to the proper amber crunch, the meat tender and virtually fat-free.
That other pancake classic, moo shi pork, is also excellent, light and fluffy, and not overly moist.
Kung pao chicken is a lackluster affair, the chicken bits too small and the sauce dominated by hoisin flavoring, so that it's cloyingly sweet.
But don't sell the Mandarin Inn short. The sauces may be hopeless, but there are plenty of impressive items. You can do quite well here if you order carefully.