CAMBRIDGE — When Mu Lan closed in 2014 after a fire, it wasn’t just the owners who were devastated. A Chinese friend who is in Cambridge completing his postdoctoral studies told us he used to go out of his way to drive by the restaurant every couple of months, just to see if the spot had reopened. In June, he was happy to see it was back, and bigger than before, expanding into the adjacent space that used to house Beauty’s Pizza.
A server estimates they have about 100 seats, including a couple of smaller rooms for private dining. The new dining room is airy and welcoming, with dark wood chairs and a wall of cream-colored upholstered banquettes.
Despite the bigger digs, this Taiwanese restaurant is often packed. At lunch time you’ll find big tables of professors and young professionals who’ve ventured over from Kendall Square, and in the evenings families with small children pack in next to groups of students drinking Tsingtao and slurping noodles.
If you were a fan of Mu Lan in its previous incarnation, you won’t be disappointed by the food, like the handmade pork and leek dumplings ($7.95). A dozen juicy little pouches with thick springy skins and savory filling, or sweet and salty charred stir-fried string beans ($9.95). But to discover some of the best dishes, like a delicate fish soup ($9.95) that contains a Chinese-style kimchi (less fiery, less funky), you have to decode a short menu written in Chinese characters. On one visit we were lucky enough to bring along friends who speak Mandarin, on another we did a lot of pointing and gesturing, with mixed results, the accompanying pictures don’t necessarily correspond with what’s available.
If you can’t read Chinese symbols, another tactic is to go to the Mu Lan website and note the dishes that fall under the “traditional menu.” On the menu they give you at your table, these are lumped in with the more Americanized fare.
The cold appetizer section is one spot to find house-made specials, like smoked duck Taiwanese style ($13.95 half, $25.95 whole). This delicacy can be a challenge for Western palates: The skin isn’t crisped, the thick layer of fat is intact, and the bird is cleaved into bite-size pieces filled with bird bones. But the delicate meat and the smoke imbued fat is a real treat, well worth venturing out of your culinary comfort-zone for.
A more familiar starter is beef with leek wrapped in pancakes ($14.95). Though beef is not a common ingredient in Taiwanese cooking (you’ll find plenty of pork on the menu), it’s a house specialty. Thin pieces of marinated meat are wrapped up in flaky Chinese-style pancakes and topped with delicate shaved scallion. Another easy-to-enjoy specialty is Taiwanese style pan-fried noodle with pork ($9.95), a tangle of thick noodles with carrots, cabbage, and bean sprouts in a soy-based sauce.
But not every dish is memorable. The eggplant with spicy garlic sauce ($10.95) is swimming in a sweet, gloppy sauce and the deep-fried bean curd ($8.95) are unseasoned squares of fried tofu, though a dipping sauce adds a bit of flavor. (Was it meant for the tofu or duck? It’s unclear.)
Despite a couple of flops, the vast majority of dishes are worth returning for, like the humbly named braised pork shin in brown sauce ($18.95). The tender meat slides off the bone and leaves your lips sticky with collagen. Soak up the gravy with white rice and offset the richness with an order or fresh stir-fried peapod stems with garlic ($15.95). That’s a favorite order of the friend who scouted out the restaurant during its temporary closure — the one who joined us for lunch when it reopened. If his second and third helpings are any indication, the new Mu Lan was worth the wait.
228 Broadway, Cambridge
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $2.95-$14.95, entrees $6.50-$26.95 (serves multiple people, most entrees under $19), lunch specials $8.95-$9.95
Hours Mon-Thurs and Sun 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Liquor Beer and wine
What to order Pork with leek dumplings, stir-fried string beans, braised pork shin in brown sauce, fish soupCatherine Smart can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @catherinesmart