There are several seemingly eternal questions associated with restaurants and dining out. Just a few of them:
Where should we go for your birthday/our anniversary?
When will (insert your favorite out-of-state chain) open in Utah?
Why does every kids' menu seem to include chicken nuggets, even at Italian places? or Thai places? or Mexican places?
Then there's the question a group of friends and I bandied about last week as we enjoyed lunch at Mandarin Garden: What makes a good Chinese restaurant?
We talked about this because the comfortable dining space in which Mandarin Garden is housed has been home to several Chinese restaurants in a row ... we're just not sure quite how many, and we're not quite sure which ones we each liked.
In fact, it seems entirely possible that we liked completely different restaurants. Does this mean this particular question has no answer?
Well, not exactly, because we all liked Mandarin Garden, a solid spot for your classic Chinese-American lunch.
That lunch consisted, as expected, of an entrée, soup, fried or steamed rice and an egg roll, reasonably priced at around six bucks.
Interestingly, despite offering no Japanese dishes that I could see, Mandarin Garden also does bento meals with the same entrées, steamed rice, gyoza, salad, soup, egg roll and fruit. This heartier meal is just a buck more than the regular lunch combo.
Several of us got various kinds of chicken, which seemed a little limited to me, critically speaking, until I realized it was a golden opportunity to test one idea that has always helped me decide if a Chinese restaurant is good or not: Despite different names, does every dish taste the same?
Happily, the answer is no. Though a few of us ordered different types of spicy breaded chicken in sauce, each was distinct, from the crunchy breading and citrusy sauce of the orange chicken to the sharp immediate heat, fading to sweetness, of the soft-breaded General Tao's chicken.
Then there was my dish: pon pon chicken, which I've never before tried but plan to have again. The spiciest of the chicken dishes, it was lightly breaded, just a bit crispy and coated with a peppery sauce that was delicious despite being a bit gummy as it cooled.
The fried rice was gently flavored but a bit sparse on the veggies, while the egg roll was average, though crisp and hot. Some of us had the mild, savory egg-drop soup with our lunch, while others (including me) had the very nice hot and sour soup, not too thick and full of tofu, seaweed and bamboo shoots.
We didn't all have breaded chicken, though. Sure, one other dish, the lo mien, contained chicken, but it was grilled and accompanied by soft noodles and crisp-tender carrots, onions and cabbage. And the Mongolian beef tasted nice and fresh, with hot but crunchy green peppers.
One more reason to like this particular restaurant: the service was knowledgeable, friendly and efficient, with kind attention paid to the two little boys with us.
Lunch specials $5.95-$7.95, kids' meals $4.95, appetizers $2.95-$10.95, soup and salad $1.75-$6.95, entrées $7.25-$12.95, combination dinners $10.95-$13.95 per person.
Where: 8627 S. Highland Drive, Sandy
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; closed Sunday
Wheelchair access: Easy
Also: Lunch specials and party trays available
Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret News.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org