296 Salem Street, Reading.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:45 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted.
Sometimes it's like driving around in circles to find good Chinese or Japanese food, but the Mandarin in Reading has it covered.
Located on a rotary off Route 128, at exit 40, (heading toward REI), the brightly painted red doors (the color in Chinese culture for good fortune and joy) and a ground-level fish tank full of rainbow-colored koi enthusiastically greet you.
"Say hello to the fish," a mother directed her young son and daughter as their family of four walked in behind us.
Bubbly excitement continues inside the lobby, where the hostess staff present multiple dining options: a sushi bar, immediately on the right (sit at the sushi bar or at small tables); or, on the left, a fully stocked bar with television (also with choice of seating), or a choice of two dining areas.
The ground-level room seats up to 70, while the second room, a more intimate space, is elevated, feeling like a treehouse-restaurant within a restaurant, and accommodates up to 40.
Ushered upstairs about four to five steps, to my kids' delight, the menu stunned us into silence with the choices.
We democratically decided to sample, starting with appetizers from the fine Asian cuisine and Chinese menu. Bo bo for two ($18), was an instant hit, an artful arrangement of vegetable spring rolls, crispy and lightly oiled, not greasy; chicken fingers; chicken wings; boneless spareribs; beef skewers that held moist, juicy beef; crab Rangoon; and, the biggest hit of all, shrimp tempura, stretched out long and straight on a skewer, covered in crunchy panko crumbs.
The moo-shi ($9), a classic Mandarin dish, was prepared individually at the table by our waiter, making us feel like royalty.
We choose beef (there's also pork, shrimp, or vegetable), which our waiter wrapped delicately in a warm flour pancake, smothered with a heaping serving of sauteed cabbage, mushrooms, wood ears, dried lily flowers, scallions, and scrambled egg. An order includes four pancakes, but just ask if you want additional ones for 50 cents each.
Also, a spicy version is available, though no one was game at our table.
From the Japanese menu, my kids protested against the vegetable tempura ($5.50) until it arrived — a tower of colorful vegetables, asparagus, yam, white potato, string bean, carrot, and broccoli — each disguised by a light, fried batter, encasing and further enhancing the vegetables' flavor. Protest over.
Gyoza ($5.50), a plate of pan-fried meat and vegetable ravioli, surprised with a delightful, crispy crunch on the bottom of each ravioli.
Though tempted, we skipped over soups, salads, teriyaki, nabe mono (seafood or thinly sliced meat with vegetables, tofu, and yam noodles cooked with sake and soy sauce on rice), and nigiri sushi (two pieces of raw or uncooked seafood on rice), opting instead for rolled sushi.
The Mandarin prides itself on its sushi master's unique creations. We choose three.
The Alaskan maki, ($6.25) — wrapped salmon, avocado, and cucumber in a blanket of seaweed and white rice — was a good introduction to sushi for some diners at the table.
Spider maki ($10.50), well, just the name alone scared my family, but even more so upon seeing it: long, spindly legs of crispy soft-shelled crab sticking out from a wrapped avocado, cucumber, and flying fish roe with spicy mayonnaise. Good. I ate it all myself.
Next time? I'm ordering the super spider maki ($16), featured once on “TV Diner,” along with some unique themed Maki — Red Sox maki, Celtic Roll, Patriot maki — all edible celebrations of New England's sports teams. (Maybe Bobby Valentine should book a team dinner for luck?)
My 10-year old devoured almost all eight pieces of the Carribbean maki ($13), a seasonal chef’s special, before we stopped her.
The pineapple, mango, salmon, and rice, topped with a drizzle of sweet pineapple sauce, transported our minds, along with our stomachs, to sit under a palm tree.
The final order was the mermaid shrimp ($14), one of Mandarin's signature dishes, a visually amusing circle of crispy shrimp “mermaids,” covered in a blended sauce of sesame seeds, finely ground roasted peanuts, spices, and a hint of sweet and sour, diving into a pool of bright green broccoli.
Though not marked as spicy, the sauce delivered a surprising kick of spice, though not overpowering.
No room for dessert, only for the chocolate-flavored fortune cookies. We unanimously agreed to return and to say hello to the fish.
KATHY SHIELS TULLY