written by: Mary Brown Malouf photos by: Adam Finkle
The balance and love behind a Utah classic.
A lot of people remember the first time I ever ate at Mandarin. In 2006, I was living in Utah part-time and writing restaurant reviews for The Salt Lake Tribune. My editor asked that I visit Mandarin, so I did—and I dissed it pretty hard. Before writing this article, I looked up that review, which at the time, inspired a flood of recriminating letters to the editor.
In the review, I said I was confused-—by the aioli served with my spring rolls, by the elaborate desserts so unusual for a Chinese restaurant and mostly, by the crowds that never stopped coming and didn’t mind the wait. Or the alarming neon strawberry chicken.
The featured dishes were all too sweet. I didn’t know then about Utah’s notorious sweet tooth. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about Utah.
During the ten years I’ve lived full-time in Utah, I’ve been back to Mandarin several times. Recently, when the restaurant was celebrating 40 years in business, I sat down with founder George Skedros, now 89 years old and at Mandarin until closing time most nights, every one of them busy. Mandarin seats 200 people and turns tables three times on a Saturday night, plus serving hundreds more takeout.
Skedros still has the restaurant’s early menus featuring choice NewYork steak and chicken fried steak, as well as Chinese classics. Always, he says, Mandarin’s menu has catered to the customers’ taste.
“Our hot-and-sour soup used to have fungus and lily pods in it,” recalls Skedros. But bowls came back to the kitchen empty except for fungus and lily pads. Authenticity was sacrificed to customer preference and the dish was adjusted. Some dishes, like Peking duck (we saw several birds drying in the walk-in on our tour of the restaurant) remain classic. Stir-fries are built around local, seasonal produce—last year, the kitchen went through 3,000 pounds of local produce. says Skedros’ daughter, Angel Manfredini, who manages the restaurant.. “It’s all about finding a balance between what your clientele wants and food you can be proud of.”
In this day of star-power chefs, that’s a mantra worth heeding.
The Sweet Stuff
Mandarin has a menu of crisp stir fries. But the sweet and sour dishes, mostly sweet, are the stars. They’re the dishes I used to turn up my nose at. Then I met Billy Yang. An American son of Chinese immigrants, Yang knows all about authentic Chinese food. But he also happens to love Americanized Chinese food. As he says, it’s “sweet, sour, savory, spicy and tangy all working in unison.”
More importantly, he said, “Authenticity is part of the credo of the contemporary gastronome who avoids culinary hybrids. But those people miss the point. A mouthful of chop suey is a bite of years of cultural blending, not Chinese food, not American food, but something entirely different and original.”
IF YOU GO
Address: 348 900 North, Bountiful
Entrees: $$ (Moderate)
See more inside our 2018 Jan/Feb Issue.