We were at the Mandarin restaurant on Arden Way and the place was holiday season-slammed. Owner Michael Helmrich was dashing to and fro between the kitchen and the dining room, helping the server deliver plates heaped with steaming delicacies in the Hunan, Canton and Szechwan styles. His dad, Steve, bused tables, and his mother, Kay Lee, sat nearby shelling fresh peas.
Their restaurant has been around since 1981. The menu is lengthy, the decor charmingly old-school, with lots of glass bricks and subdued lighting. The potent mai-tai is its best-selling cocktail.
Kay Lee brought the restaurant’s recipes with her from Taiwan, and continues to make the from-scratch sauces herself. We were there for one of the best dishes in town, “spicy garlic shrimp in wine sauce” ($18).
The dish arrived – a bowl filled with crispy shrimp in a luscious not-too-sweet, not-to-hot sauce speckled with minced garlic. Whole garlic cloves sat on top. We spooned all of it onto mounds of steamed white rice and didn’t talk for awhile.
Kay Lee stopped by the table.
“What ingredients do you put into your sauce?” I asked.
“Shrimp and garlic,” she said.
“No, I mean what goes into the sauce itself? White wine and what else? Soy sauce? Honey? Hot peppers?”
“Shrimp and garlic,” she repeated, her face breaking into a mischievous smile.
Later, I asked Michael the same question. “She won’t even tell me,” he said. “She keeps the recipe locked in a safe at home.”
We decided it doesn’t matter. We know where to get it when we want it – which is often.
The Mandarin is at 4321 Arden Way, 916-488-4794, www.themandarinrestaurant.com.