REVIEW BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
On the roulette table of life, what are the odds that a newspaper reporter from Taiwan would wind up opening a restaurant that is now the oldest restaurant in Willow Grove? Newspapers tend to review new restaurants — and why not? There are always new ones opening, but there is something to be said for longevity, especially since a recent study by the Cornell University School of Restaurant & Hotel Management revealed that more than 60 percent of restaurants that open in the U.S. are out of business within one year.
Which is all the more remarkable that Michael Wei, who had little previous restaurant experience and little fluency with the English language, opened Mandarin Garden in 1985 at 91 York Road (at Davisville) in Willow Grove (a pebble’s throw from the Willow Grove Train Station), where it is still flourishing. Like so many other immigrants, Wei has made this country the StairMaster of success.
Wei, 74, who had been a newspaper reporter in Taiwan, came to the U.S. to attend the University of Missouri, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism. He worked his way through school working in a Chinese restaurant and even after graduation, he worked as a law clerk by day and in a Chinese restaurant at night.
Wei was unable to secure a job in a newspaper, however, so when his uncle, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Temple University, told him about a restaurant that was for sale in Willow Grove, Wei “scooped” it up, and Mandarin Garden was born.
What set Mandarin Garden apart from other Chinese restaurants at the time was Wei’s and chef Mu Yang Shen’s creation of “fusion cuisine,” combining Asian ingredients with reduced French sauces, for example. At the time fusion cuisine was cutting-edge, but it has since become a virtual staple at restaurants all over the country.
Mandarin Garden is not a place for the hipsterati, but it wears its long history like a stylish hat. It practically chloroforms you with Old World appeal.
“We have been going to Mandarin Garden since it opened,” said Eve Quattrone, a long-time Willow Grove resident. “When I was in my late 40s about 20 years ago, we stopped going there because I was wearing braces on my teeth, and their fabulous spare ribs would get stuck in my teeth. I could not wait until the braces came off after two years, so we could go back and get the spare ribs.”
Another long-time customer, Abington resident Bennett Fairorth, belonged to a friends’ club that had lunch at Mandarin Garden once a month for four years until several club members either became incapacitated or died. “The food was always delicious, and the service was always great,” he said. “The dumplings, spring rolls and shrimp dishes were consistently excellent.”
Our most recent visit to Mandarin Garden in mid-February was for their Chinese New Year Banquet, an eight-course affair for $45.95 per person that was offered until Feb. 25.
The prices on the regular menu are beyond reasonable for the quality of the food. For example, an entree like chicken with mushrooms and zucchini in a garlic black bean sauce is just $10.95, as is wild-peppered chicken with shiitake mushrooms and peppers in a wild peppered sauce. A Hunan shrimp entree is just $12.50. Only a few entrees are more than $15.
Dishes from the banquet menu that blew us away were the velvety salt-peppered jumbo scallops, subtle crabmeat winter squash soup with shrimp, tofu, shiitake and egg white; and crispy whole sea bass with honey pine nuts, tomato, peas and onions, accented with a sublime sweet and sour fermented rice wine sauce.
Drink prices at Mandarin Garden are also shocking. Where else can you get a glass of decent wine or a cocktail these days for less than $5? For example, a glass of Copperidge Chardonnay is $3.50, and a glass of Glen Ellen Chardonnay is $3.95. A glass of Mondavi/Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon is $3.95. Cocktails like Mai Tai or Pina Colada are $4.75 each. I thought maybe I had been given a 25-year-old menu by mistake.
The restaurant’s managing partner is Dennis Lau, who is as welcoming and comfortable as a pair of flat shoes. He is charming and personable and knows the many regular customers like the fingers on his hands.
In true entrepreneurial style, Mandarin Garden was a sparkplug that set an engine of prosperity in motion. In the 32 years since opening the Willow Grove restaurant, Michael Wei has opened Nectar in Berwyn, Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill and Yangming in Bryn Mawr. All are still thriving.
For more information: www.mandaringardenrestaurant.com, or call 215-657-3993 or 215-302-9044.