Mouth Pacific

New Mandarin Delight Chinese Bistro, 5380 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 274-5204. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5to 10 p.m., seven days a week; Sunday brunch, 11:30a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Like most grown-ups who've managed to survive their youthful follies, I look back on my early recklessness and shake my head with wonder: How could I have been so dumb?

For instance, in my early 20s, I spent five years living deep in the Third World, absolutely convinced of my immortality. With open eyes, I did things then that I wouldn't do now under heavy sedation.

Example 1: In west Africa, I booked a flight on something called Air Mauritania. The plane looked like Baron von Richthofen's--after it was shot down. Yet, as we revved up to top speed for takeoff, I didn't record even the slightest twinge of fear when I glanced out the window and watched a guy on a camel pass us.

Example 2: Working in Iran just before the ayatollahs took over, I took some vacation time to sneak a view of a holy Shiite shrine, a site of pilgrimage and worship. Because non-Muslims were forbidden to enter, I had to get myself dressed to blend in with the throng, and learn the proper devotional technique. I asked a friend what would happen if I were discovered. "Oh, they'd probably stone you," he said.

If rickety planes and militant Muslims didn't fill my thick head with terror, the prospect of eating native specialties in Third World restaurants certainly couldn't. I'd eat anything, anywhere, in joints so grungy that even the flies would hesitate before entering. (A lifetime of Mama Seftel's cooking, I naively believed, had furnished me with gastrointestinal immunity.)

That wonderful sense of youthful invulnerability has long since worn off. These days, I get sweaty palms before a Southwest Airlines flight to San Diego. I won't buy anything by Salman Rushdie, or even check out his books from the library unless I use someone else's card. And I'm considerably fussier about the state of ethnic joints I eat in.

Recent visits to two Asian places, New Mandarin Delight and Da Vang, spotlighted the change in my restaurant attitude.

New Mandarin Delight is the kind of Chinese restaurant that I used to scorn for not looking "ethnic" enough.

In the old days, one peek at the tables would have been enough to kindle my skepticism. They're covered with pale-green linen tablecloths, not chipped Formica. They're set with cloth napkins and--horrors--forks, spoons and knives, not chopsticks. The walls aren't plastered with untranslated, off-the-menu Mandarin specialties. Instead, they're lined with expensive-looking Chinese ceramic figurines. From big, comfy booths, diners peer through picture windows that overlook jetting fountains set in a pond. How, I would have asked myself, could you trust such a spiffy, good-looking place to serve authentic, tasty fare, and not Americanized combination-plate glop?

Well, in fact, New Mandarin Delight does serve chow mein, egg-roll and fried-rice combo platters. But I can't hold that against it--no Chinese restaurant in our town could survive with a Chinatown-type menu that featured only such exotic treats as duck feet, cold jellyfish and a pork-fat hot pot.

So I'm not upset that New Mandarin Delight offers lots of you-can-get-them-anywhere staples like sweet-and-sour pork, kung pao chicken and beef with broccoli. That's because there are still plenty of dishes here to bring a smile to more adventurous fans of Chinese food.

I'd have to put Peking duck at the top of that list. This is one of the few places in the Valley that prepares this specialty, and you don't have to order it in advance. You get your money's worth, too. For 20 bucks, you receive a whole, crisp-skinned, honey-brushed duck, brought to your table by two servers. One puts on latex gloves (the kind your dentist uses), grabs the bird with one hand and carves off the meat with the other. Waiter number two is busy coating moo-shu pancakes with plum sauce, adding scallions and sliced duck, and wrapping them up. My group of four got two servings each out of this, plus the meat we gnawed off legs and wings.

Yuling chicken isn't nearly as fancy, but it's equally scrumptious. I especially admired its clean, fresh taste. The kitchen batters and lightly fries juicy chunks of boneless, marinated breast, throws in some crunchy cabbage for texture, then moistens everything with the chef's delicately flavored "special" sauce.

Twin-flavor shrimp is another house specialty that hits its target. You get 14 firm crustaceans, half of them covered with a light white-wine sauce, the other seven with a snappy hot-ginger sauce that adds a pleasing zing to the dish. Sizzling black-pepper steak also is satisfying: four extremely tender beef medallions crusted with pepper, served on a sizzling skillet with green pepper and onions in a first-rate black-bean sauce.

Except for Korea and a few regions of China, lamb is shunned throughout the Orient--it's considered too strong and gamy. Most Chinese restaurants don't offer it. But New Mandarin Delight offers Hunan lamb, sliced meat in a sauce not nearly as spicy as the menu suggests. And if you're looking for an alternative to sweet-and-sour pork, consider Peking pork, enlivened with lots of bamboo shoots.

Not every dish works. One vegetarian dish we sampled, twin mushroom with bean curd, is a snooze: cubes of tofu tossed with a few shiitake mushrooms in a dull, brown liquid. Hot-and-sour soup isn't pungent enough to make a newborn pucker. And your memory of the barbecued-pork appetizer will vanish the moment it's cleared from the table.

Don't misjudge New Mandarin Delight just because it doesn't hang duck carcasses in the front window or employ servers who communicate only in Mandarin. Order well, and you'll be rewarded with good food, at neighborhood prices, in a very pleasant setting.

Da Vang, 4538 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 242-3575. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

In contrast to New Mandarin Delight, DaVang looks like everything I used to worship in an ethnic restaurant: Specials written in Vietnamese are posted on the walls; blaring Vietnamese pop music is piped in; "33" export beer from the home country sits in a refrigerated case; and cigarettes for sale are housed in ancient wooden shelves behind the cash register. The clientele also conformed to my ideal ethnic-restaurant mental picture: The only non-Vietnamese I saw in here was, inexplicably, a Mexican mariachi outfitted in full music-making regalia.

One other Third World element also was present in abundance: grunge. It's everywhere--on the floor, on the windows, on the walls, on the vertical blinds, on the display cases. The proprietors are definitely not wearing themselves out wielding brooms and dustcloths. If you bring fussy Aunt Edith and Uncle Walter from Milwaukee here to give them an authentic Vietnamese experience, you'd better bring along some Pine-Sol to revive them.

Just as Da Vang's setting doesn't aim for Western levels of tidiness, the food doesn't make concessions to Western palates. This is native ethnic fare, with a vengeance. You can tell right away from the pho, the traditional Vietnamese meal-in-a-bowl beef soup. Our server steered us away from pho DaVang--"It has tendon and tripe," he warned. So we settled on pho tai, a somewhat greasy but flavorful broth stocked with thin rice noodles, scallions and sliced beef that did not come from the world's leanest, tenderest cow.

Most other soups also make it clear that you're not in Kansas anymore. Canh chua ca tom lon, for example, features shrimp and unfilleted chunks of catfish in a sharp tamarind broth, seasoned with green chiles. It's an acquired taste that first-timers probably won't immediately acquire. They'd be much better off with mi sui cao, a less threatening bowl thick with shell-on shrimp, roast pork, squid, egg noodles and won-ton-wrapped shrimp, garnished with lots of cilantro.

You can't find ethnic appetizers much better (or cheaper) than goi cuon or cha gio. The former are Vietnamese rice-paper rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, rice noodles and greenery. The latter resemble Chinese egg rolls, fried crisp and filled with shrimp and pork. Dip them both into nuoc cham, a strong, anchovy-based sauce that's an indispensable part of Vietnamese cuisine.

Da Vang's banh xeo, a rice-flour crepe, is definitely a less compelling way to start a meal. At its best, banh xeo is magnificent, a sizzlingly crisp, right-out-of-the-skillet crepe brimming with shrimp and pork. The oily model here, however, is filled with fatty pork and a ho-hum load of bean sprouts.

The main dishes can't really compete with those at Pearl of Asia and Pho Bang, two superior Vietnamese restaurant alternatives. Hu tieu xao hai vi (number 14 to most of us) puts a few shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, squid, inedible gristly pork and fake crab (ugh!) atop rice noodles in a surprisingly dull sauce.

The steamed rice covered with shredded pork, barbecued pork and crab-and-egg "pate" (number 35) is merely routine, not nearly as good as the same dish at Pho Bang. A noodle version of this dish (number 30), mixed with barbecued pork and ground shrimp, is no improvement. Lemongrass chicken, meanwhile, employs unattractively large hunks of dark meat that taste as if they've been sitting around since the fall of Saigon.

Only nem nuong (number 42) aroused my interest. They're wonderful, bite-size, barbecued-pork meatballs, served (like everything else) with masses of lettuce, mint, basil and cilantro for wrapping. (If your doctor ever diagnoses a chlorophyll deficiency, a single visit to a Vietnamese restaurant should furnish the cure.)

Da Vang may have all the trappings of a low-cost ethnic gem. But I'd have to be drafted to make a return visit.

New Mandarin Delight
Chinese Bistro:
Yuling chicken
$7.75
Hunan lamb
7.95
Sizzling black-pepper steak
8.95
Twin-flavor shrimp
9.25

Da Vang:
Goi cuon
$1.60
Pho tai
3.50
Lemongrass chicken
4.00
Nem nuong
5.25

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