Chinese Food Tragedy

Photo by Cel JarvisShe fled Orange County four years ago for the good karma of northern Oregon, her soul beaten down by the crap traffic, the crap jobs, the crap boyfriends. We'd been friends since high school and had shared much together, food often coming into play with some of our strongest memories: cutting class for early, beat-the-crowd lunches at Tommy's; birthday dinners at Angelo's & Vinci's; cheese sauce fights on the Pacific Amphitheater lawn during the Dylan-Petty show; overpriced swordfish at the Coach House while watching a transcendent Maria McKee; coming out over Red Robin cheeseburgers; catching up on each other's lives over Cha Cha Cha's Jamaican jerk chicken, camarones negroes and black-bean tamales.

In Portland, she was happier. Yet I sensed sadness in her voice on the phone that night, a homesick melancholy she only gets when she's hungry, when her palate pines for flavors once so frequent and familiar but can now only be tasted by hopping on a southbound plane.

"What do you miss most?" I asked.

"Oh, the beers at the Tap House. And Cha Cha Cha—you can't get any decent jerk chicken up here. And definitely the Mandarin Pavillion."

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"Uh, what's . . . the . . . the . . ."

"The Mandarin Pavillion, this place in Fullerton. They have the best Chinese I've ever had in my life."

Best in her life?!? I'd never heard of the place.

I was crushed. We knew everything about each other and had always conferred about new restaurant discoveries. Why had she kept this secret from me, her lifelong friend? And what else was she hiding? Did she have a third eyeball growing on the back of her neck, covered over by her long, flowing locks? Did she have a bizarre cat-vomit fetish? Was she really a he? The questions spun in my head for days.

Our chat ended stiffly but cordially. There was nothing I could do now except journey to this Mandarin Pavillion, to find just how deeply the deceit had burned. Was this really the best Chinese food anywhere?

It was true—tragically, depressingly, deliciously true.

She had never told me about the windowless room nestled near a nondescript corner of working-class Fullerton. Not a peep about the fish tanks, the huge bar where they mix Flaming Virgins and coconut-shell-served pia coladas, the non-functioning train set that caresses the middle booths—booths made of plush, old brown leather, the perfect ass-plant for a long, orgasmic meal.

Nothing about the black-bowtied waiters who bring out such treasures as the three-flavor sizzling rice soup, a scintillating broth of grains, shrimp, ham and mushrooms that actually is sizzling when it arrives at the table.

Nothing about the assorted appetizer platter, served in a rotating wood bowl rimmed with eggrolls, barbecued chicken, shrimp toast (kind of like a fried shrimp, but with lots of extra batter around it that's shaped into a square), wontons and pork spareribs. Oh—and the beef skewers, which you're supposed to heat up yourself on the tiny little flaming grill in the middle of the bowl.

She never said anything about that.

And never once a word about what she told me that night was her favorite dish, the aromatic shrimp. That nobody on the waitstaff seemed to know why it's called "aromatic" only troubled me more—were they also keeping secrets from me as part of some vast culinary conspiracy? Still, it was excellent—beautiful, plump, deveined prawns, lightly fried in orange sauce with stalks of raw broccoli circling around them, and not drippingly greasy, either, like too many other Chinese places do fried shrimp.

It was . . . the best . . . Chinese-food shrimp . . . anywhere. And it had been kept from me all this time.

I broke down into a hysterical crying jag, thankful that the waiters brought out hot towels between each course. Once my eyes dried, I angrily vowed to make up all those lost years of eating bland Chinese. With my fist tightly clenched and my manly brow furrowed, I swore to return to the Mandarin Pavillion as often as the foodie gods would allow it.

And my "friend?" We haven't spoken since that last phone call. Indeed, we may never speak again.

The Mandarin Pavillion, located at 1050 W. Valencia Dr., Fullerton, is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 870-7950. Full bar. Three-course dinner for two, $40, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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