“Trust me….I eat a lot.” Owner Nee Lau keeps a slow and steady emphasis on quality above all else.
The pandemic may have expedited owner Nee Lau’s plans to pursue what was a retirement dream of opening a restaurant, but when it comes to executing his vision at The Mandarin in Menlo Park, it’s all about slowing down.
“I’d rather have a customer wait than rush a dish that’s not perfectly done yet,” Lau says.
One example of The Mandarin’s slow approach is in the preparation of the eight treasure duck. That, Lau says, must be ordered at least two days in advance. Preparation includes the delicate business of deboning a duck and stuffing it with glutinous sticky rice, peanuts, black mushroom, dried shrimp, scallops and salted egg yolks — all while ensuring the skin stays intact.
The tea-smoked duck needs to be brined for 72 hours, stewed and simmered, and finally dried and smoked.
Lau gives a heads-up to those who order the whole fish in spicy bean sauce too. The rock cod requires 30 minutes to simmer so that the flavor can permeate to the bone.
“People say location, location, location, but for me it’s, quality, quality, quality,” Lau says.
The restaurant recently had a soft opening at 1029 El Camino Real, the former home of Black Pepper that had been at the space since 2017. It closed amid the pandemic.
At The Mandarin, specialities like tea-smoked duck and golden crab appear alongside comfort foods like General Tso’s chicken, Mongolian beef and crab rangoons.
In the future, Lau hopes to expand the menu to offer Japanese and more Cantonese items. They’ll reflect the dishes he was exposed to while growing up, working in restaurants and traveling across China working in high tech.
“In a word, it’s fusion,” Lau says. “Some people ask, ‘Why are you doing fortune cookies?’ You know what? People like it. And fortune cookies (are) something I like,” Lau said. “I want to do pan-Asian.”
Lau’s enlisted the help of chef Rui Young, who trained in China and specialized in Szechuan cuisine at Sichuan Home and Z&Y Restaurant. There are plans to bring on board chef Ming Li of Koi Palace and Mayflower Restaurant.
Lau himself started in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher in Redwood City at the age of 14, just after his family immigrated from Guangdong. By the time he was 18, he was managing the Juban Yakiniku House in Menlo Park. It recently closed just blocks away from what’s now the location of The Mandarin, but back in the day Lau remembers the restaurant was serving up some of the first A5 Wagyu beef in the area.
Along the way, Lau tried different dishes at local restaurants with his bosses, and has since come to appreciate all sorts of food.
“Trust me,” says Lau, “I eat a lot.”
He wants customers to also be able to try things that are new to them.
“If people want to eat dishes they haven’t eaten before and they can’t get it, come talk to me,” Lau says.
In July, Lau’s aiming for a beer and wine license and grand opening to celebrate The Mandarin’s different dishes.
“There’s tradition, and there’s a new generation. And they can work together very well. With food, there’s no boundaries,” Lau says.
The Mandarin // 1029 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; 650.391.9811
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closed Monday).
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