A hint of classic Chinese architecture graces the front of the building, and there are plastic replicas of food in the entryway, as if to suggest the dishes will be unfamiliar to the Silicon Valley diner. But once you are seated at the table, the illusion vanishes and you quickly realize that you are in an Americanized Mandarin Chinese restaurant.
Your first clue might be the heavy metal Muzak, which quickly gives way to a confused version of "Just Call Me Angel", and continued intrusively during both of my visits. Another hint would be the large cinnamon candles on the tables, whose scent didn't exactly complement our meal.
Unfortunately, the service started off with a confusing interaction with the waitress when she came to take our orders on the first visit. I had spied construction paper signs advertising "Iced Thai Tea!" all over the restaurant, so I asked, "May I have an iced Thai tea?" The waitress responded with a curt, "No."
Thai tea may seem like a surprising offering in a Mandarin Chinese restaurant, but the large menu accommodates an eclectic variety, offering Taiwanese-style dim sum and Mandarin cuisine, in addition to Thai beverages and a full bar. Originally opened as Chef Wang in 2000, the management of Chef Liu also operates the nearby Mervyn's Lounge. The menu includes appetizers, dim sum (available during lunch and dinner), an extensive vegetarian menu and some lamb dishes, in addition to the standard menu selections. They offer a three-dish dinner special for $23.95, with 20 dishes to choose from — a real deal.
Twenty-five minutes later, our soup came before our appetizer, brought by a different server (our waitress never reappeared). The chicken and sweet corn soup ($7.95) was piping hot and filled with bits of chicken breast, egg and some corn, but tasted mainly of egg and lacked seasoning. We had barely started our soup when our appetizer and main course dishes arrived all at once, and we set our soup aside and did not revisit it.
The scallion pancake ($2.50, listed on the dim sum menu), was greasy and filled with scallions, but unfortunately arrived luke-warm. I think if it had arrived hot it would have been a real treat.
The tangerine chicken ($9.95) was a delightful surprise. It was lightly breaded, and the sauce had hints of soy, making it less sweet than you might expect. Bits of tangerine peel in the sauce really made the dish sing. We were surprised to find chili pods throughout the dish, as it was not indicated as a spicy offering on the menu, but we found that if you picked around them, you could enjoy the dish without the fire, if that is your preference.
On my subsequent visit, I also greatly enjoyed the vegetable deluxe ($8.95). It included broccoli, cabbage, bamboo shoots, zucchini, straw mushrooms, peapods, baby corn, and garlic. All of the vegetables had great flavor and texture and this dish could compete with any local vegetarian restaurant.
During both visits white rice was brought in generous portions without having to ask and tea was served promptly, but getting our food and paying our bill took more than 20 minutes at the start and end of each visit, and the interior of the restaurant was surprisingly chilly. I also noticed that the lunch menu, while displayed outside at all times, is not available on the weekend, so you pay dinner prices during the weekend lunch hours, an average of $2 per plate more. This may account for the lack of a crowd during our Saturday lunch visit.
A few of us also left with some MSG side-effects after the meal, so if you are sensitive to MSG, you may want to ask about it when placing your order.
Chef Liu has a vast and varied menu, and I think despite some hiccups in the service, it's a solid stop for a visit downtown or for take-out. If you are next door at Mervyn's Bar, you can have your food delivered to your barstool, and that is hard to beat.
Chef Liu Mandarin Restaurant & Bar
236 Castro Street