The Emperor's new clothes
Mandarin Taste expands the map
Cilantro shredded beef at Mandarin Taste
Coming home is one of the most delicious human experiences, and it’s all the sweeter when accomplished through food. After a decade of searching for a local restaurant that hearkened back to my Chinese mother’s cooking, I’m happy to report I’ve found it.
When I first arrived in Tulsa 10 years ago, the food scene was new and exciting. But like any college freshman knows, the orientation phase is soon followed by a wave of homesickness. As the red dust settled, my tastebuds began yearning for my mother’s home cooking.
An immigrant from Guangzhou (formerly Canton, where Cantonese cuisine originates), my mother would make such staples as beef and broccoli, rice porridge with various accoutrements, spicy clay pot chicken and rice, and steamed fish in a ginger-
With cravings like that, P.F. Chang’s and Egg Roll Express couldn’t hold a candle.
And so, foaming at the mouth, I began to obsess over where the good Chinese restaurants were—the hunt was on.
A decade earlier, Sally Yau, then an international student from Beijing, was wondering the same thing. “Twenty years ago, there was nothing,” Yau said. “Even now, there are not that many.”
Yau subsequently met her husband and decided to stay in Oklahoma, raising two girls (now aged 14 and 11), and a third baby: Mandarin Taste, which she opened in 2013.
Like me, she’d been longing for what her mom cooked. However, she needed northern food while I needed southern food.
In broad strokes, northern (Mandarin) food is contrasted with southern (Sichuan) food in this way: Mandarin cuisine is food fit to please an emperor, having originated in Beijing’s Imperial Court. While saltier, its overall flavors are milder, more delicate in efforts to showcase the high quality of the ingredients.
Southern cuisine is like heavy metal to the north’s classical. It focuses on packing each dish with more flavor and heat. (My mother gave herself a peptic ulcer due to her addiction to spicy foods; I recall many a night in which, after feeding us kids, she’d sit at the kitchen table sweating over a chili-laden dish.) The closer to the equator a place is, the more likely its cuisine has this in common.
The distance from Beijing to Sichuan is 1,970 miles; the vertical length of the U.S. is 1,582 miles. The likelihood of a northerner eating the same cuisine as a southerner in China is equivalent to a Yankee having a regular breakfast of Cajun shrimp and grits.
For this reason, I wrote off Mandarin Taste. Though high-quality and authentic, it was not what I ached for. I visited a few times, enjoying the fun and communal hot pot addition to their menu in 2015. Still, I kept pining for a place that served my favorites from home or a Chinatown restaurant—something spicier, or some classically Cantonese flavors.
But things changed after a renovation last July, when Mandarin Taste rolled out an extensive and satisfying new menu. With flavors from all over the map, Yau has doubled-down on creating an authentic, pan-
“I want [guests] to know the real Chinese food,” Yau said.
Mandarin Taste has cranked up the heat by offering numerous Sichuan-style options, expanded their hot pot offerings by creating a sauce bar (ubiquitous in China), and even added such Canto favorites as a dim sum platter and egg tarts—flaky, creamy, delicate and perfect.
They can be purchased at the new café counter, along with fruit drinks (such as a zingy lemon-mint tea), traditional milk teas, cream puffs, and even Chinese cakes, which are characterized by being less dense, not cloyingly sweet like their Western counterparts, and filled and/or topped with fruit such as berries, kiwi, and yes, Mandarin oranges. Fresh Chinese bakery items in Tulsa—for that, I’ll give a yee haw!
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Here are Mandarin Taste’s Chinese comfort food standouts:
B1: Cilantro Shredded Beef
Thin strips of steak, slices of garlic and ginger, and chunks of red and green chili peppers are coated in an explosively spicy sauce. What makes this dish unique, though, is the large amount of cilantro incorporated into the stir-fry. Americanized recipes that call for cilantro may ask the cook to use just the leaves, and just as a garnish, but this dish features whole stalks of cilantro cut into matchstick-size pieces—it’s fantastic.
P1: Shredded Pork with Sweet and Spicy Sauce
The sweet and sour sauce
of this dish is kicked up with spice, like a fiery gravy.
Thinly-sliced pork is combined with a generous portion of vegetables—julienned bamboo and carrots, sliced jalapeño, onions, and “wood ear” mushrooms. With this bright red, chilli-infused sauce, rice is a must.
N2: Beef with Fresh
A popular Cantonese dish, prepared just as it should be. Fresh, flat rice noodles are painstakingly pulled apart—I did this many times as a kid in my mom’s kitchen—and sautéed with slices of beef, broccoli, carrots, bean sprouts, onions, and a light coating of a sweeter sauce made with sugar and light and dark soy sauces. A family favorite.