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Hunan Garden to be reborn as Mandarin Roots

Uploaded: May 21, 2014
Fans of Palo Alto's long-standing Chinese restaurant Hunan Garden on El Camino Real might have despaired when signs suddenly went up in the windows indicating the owners were going on an extended vacation. A mysterious voicemail said that after 15 years of hard work, owner Simon Yuan was going on vacation for a month and looked forward to seeing diners upon his return.

Though Yuan is still in the picture, Hunan Garden as Palo Altans know it is no more. In late May, it will reopen as Mandarin Roots, a revamped Chinese-California cuisine concept, under the purview of Yuan's son, Jarvis. (The elder Yuan is still "involved in all aspects of operation," his son said, and will continue to be a presence in the restaurant on a daily basis. "If customers are coming in to see Simon, he will be around," Jarvis said.)

The younger Yuan describes the new concept as elevated street food.

"It's based off the idea of taking Chinese food that my dad was doing and fusing it with what I've been doing, which is California, and taking that to the next level," Jarvis said.

This means new menu items like mandarin beef tacos with citrus-marinated grilled steak, pickled root vegetables and gochujang aioli; corn and seaweed tempura poppers (fresh cut corn, roasted seaweed and sweet chili sauce); king salmon with pickled lotus root, lily bulbs, soy and baby squash; pork belly quesadillas with braised pork belly, mozzarella, gouda cheese, scallions and a peach kimchee emulsion.

There are many twists on old favorites, like broccolini beef ($14) and crispy calamari cooked like traditional salt-and-pepper crab ($10). Chicken lettuce wraps are dressed up with jicama and pomegranate hoisin sauce.

Standards like potstickers ($9 for six), honey walnut prawns, chow fun, fried rice, Sichuan green beans and sesame chicken all remain, though the menu is much smaller and more focused than Hunan Garden's vast number of options. Salads and sides are all $9; rice and noodle dishes range from $10 to $16, depending on if seafood is added or not. Entrees range from $12 chicken dishes to a $26 Chilean sea bass.

The menu is mostly Jarvis' vision, executed by chef de cuisine Ron Chu, who is "very well-versed in Japanese and Chinese cuisine," Jarvis said. The two met soon after Jarvis, then 18, went to California Culinary Academy.

After graduating, Jarvis did an externship at a Japanese restaurant in Sunnyvale (that no longer exists) before joining the Straits restaurant group. Straits operates restaurants in San Francisco, Burlingame, San Jose (Santana Row) and Houston. (There used to be a Straits Café in Palo Alto, at the current location of Indo Restaurant & Lounge at 3295 El Camino.)

Jarvis has brought on John Ma, also from Straits, to be Mandarin Roots' general manager.

After moving through the ranks at Straits, Jarvis eventually moved to Southern California, working at a tapas-style Asian restaurant in Laguna. His most recent stint was at upscale dim sum restaurant Sino at Santana Row, where he worked as executive chef for a year.

Jarvis said he never worked in Hunan Garden while growing up in Los Altos -- his parents didn't want him to go into the restaurant industry.

"They're in it; it's hard work and they didn't want me to follow the same path. They kept telling me to get better grades, to go to college, (to) do all that," he said.

But college wasn't for him, and culinary school was.

The 3345 El Camino Real space has also gone through a physical revamp, with new carpet, new chairs and a redone banquette.

The outdoor patio will get lanterns, new booth seating and a lounge-type area near the bar, Jarvis said.

Drinks-wise, Mandarin Roots has new beers on tap and by the bottle, plus six red and six white wines and seasonal specialty cocktails (all $10) like a mango mojito.

Mandarin Roots is hosting an invite-only soft opening Friday, May 30, with a grand opening scheduled for Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Call 650-565-8868 for reservations.

Tentative hours of operation after this weekend will be lunch, Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner starting at 4 p.m. Mandarin Roots will close at 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 10 p.m., possibly later, Thursday through Saturday.

P.S.: Owner Jarvis Yuan posted on his Facebook page after opening night that Mandarin Roots now has a secret menu, just for Hunan Garden fans.

"For the regulars of the previous Hunan Garden Restaurant, our team at Mandarin Roots have created a 'Secret Menu' that you can order from," he wrote. "If you can name the dish, we will do our best to accommodate and make it just like how you remembered it. Looking forward to seeing the regulars of Hunan Garden as well as the new regulars of Mandarin Roots."
What is it worth to you?


Posted by parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm

We hate "Asian-Fusion" cuisine. It tastes like the bled all the flavor out of the original recipes and replaced it with America's favorite spices of salt, sugar and lard. Why are Asian-style restaurants so afraid of using traditional recipes?

Posted by BillT, a resident of Midtown,
on May 21, 2014 at 3:50 pm

I welcome this change. Personally, I'm kind of bored of traditional American chinese food. That being said, I will miss the atmosphere of the old HG though, it was a welcoming place. I hope the new place has the same neighborhood feel to it. The cocktails sound good!

I do wish to take issue with the previous poster's comment about "America's favorite spices of salt sugar and lard." American food is so incredibly varied that I think its unfair to call these "American favorites." Salt is common in European cooking, so is sugar. Indian food can be salty. Lard is usually found with Hispanic foods and marked "Manteca" because I think its still really common in Mexican cuisine (and definitely makes for a richer flavor than vegetable shortening!), but I don't think its very mainstream at all anymore. Baja Fresh, which is highly americanized, advertises that it uses no lard.

I just tire of people using American as a synonym for unsophisticated and boring. Yes, you can get unsophisticated and pedestran fare here, there and everywhere. Its not unique to America. We have our share of mundane salt and sugar, but we also have some incredibly exciting chefs that put a new spin on nearly every type of food.

Posted by parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 21, 2014 at 5:55 pm

American Fusion Cuisine = replacing the traditional herbs and spices in Asian recipes with salt, sugar, and lard to make the dishes look Asian, but taste American. Yes, perhaps the salt, sugar, and lard originated in Europe, but so did most American cuisine.

Posted by another parent, a resident of Palo Verde,
on May 21, 2014 at 7:04 pm

To parent: so don't go there.

I'm looking forward to the new place.

Posted by SCB, a resident of another community,
on May 22, 2014 at 1:59 am

SCB is a registered user.

It looks like "bye-bye" vegetarian options. So I guess I won't go there either. It sounds like a TERRIBLE change to me! YUK! All that's left of vegetarian is "Sichuan green beans"? That is really too bad. The food that would be coming sounds lousy to me, even if Jarvis happened to go to culinary school. What an awful choice to change the food to the type Jarvis is planning to serve. Simon Yuan, talk some sense into your son!!

Posted by Long-time fan, a resident of Menlo Park,
on May 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm

I hope Simon will still be around. Simon (also Su and Mei!) was a HUGE part of the attraction at Hunan Gardens - the food was always fresh and delicious, but Simon's presence was so important. It kind of sounds like he won't I hope this is not another case of taking a well-loved and often busy restaurant and making so many changes to the cuisine AND staff that old-time fans don't care to return.
Good luck!!?

Posted by Elena Kadvany, online editor of Palo Alto Online,
on May 22, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Elena Kadvany is a registered user.

SCB: I should have been more clear -- that was just a small selection of menu items, meant to give an idea of the new concept. The new menu has an entire vegetarian section with eggplant, green beans, seasonal veggies, braised ofu, mapo tofu and an unusual-sounding dish called "lotus and lillies" with goji berries, woodear mushrooms and asparagus.

Long-time fan: Simon was there and very present when I checked it out, so I don't think he's out of the picture. Just changing roles, as far as I can tell!

Posted by Hunan Garden Fan, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 23, 2014 at 11:23 am

My family's favorite Chinese restaurant. Simon was always a fantastic host. Will give the new place a try (and have to find a new favorite Chinese).

Posted by ANOTHER HUNAN GARDEN FAN, a resident of Midtown,
on May 23, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Very, very sorry that the original Hunan Garden restaurant has closed; as stated earlier, Simon's sparkling personality and rapport with his customers was one of the main attractions - that, and excellent Chinese food. My family have gone there for 15 years, and have brought many visitors and guests there, and never, ever been disappointed. Every dish was a delight. Of course, it's nice that Simon's son Jarvis is following in his father's (and mother's) footsteps, but one only hopes that he will do as magnificent a job of running a great restaurant as Simon has. What are his parents' plans? We certainly hope to see them again! It would be like losing members of our family if we don't!

Posted by tod r ford, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 26, 2014 at 3:43 am

great reporting. we liked them before but didn t go too much. all the dishes we liked, but kind of big on the tenderizer style meat. sounds like good food . reminds me of 3ta and amarin in mt view. beware elevation. but american chinese food has been stuck in a losing battle to thai food , so there is room there to reinterpret.

Posted by dc, a resident of North Whisman,
on May 26, 2014 at 8:49 pm

It may be new but an impressive staff resume. The family recipes will always be near by an will mom and dad.

Posted by Aaron, a resident of another community,
on May 27, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Last Thursday evening on the way back from SFO,completely jet-lagged, recovering from food-poisoning we decided to wait-out some rush hour traffic by grabbing a bite at Hunan.... Uh-oh.. Closed? On a Thursday evening??? Oh no!

Thanks Elena for covering this story! You have averted a panic!! :)

We have been going to Hunan Garden for 15+ years now. Simon has always welcomed us with a smile, great conversation and wonderful food. I look forward to seeing if his son's dishes are as delicious as they look...

Posted by Fan of Yuan family of chefs, a resident of another community,
on May 27, 2014 at 10:36 pm

Congratulations, Simon, on your son's success, and his ability to fill your shoes! Now you can relax a bit, and let Jarvis do the hard work. I will miss your old restaurant, but am looking forward to taste the interesting new dishes Jarvis has created in Mandarin Roots. Best wishes to Jarvis and Team! Thanks for the news, Elena!

Posted by Celiac, a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 28, 2014 at 11:32 am

One of the things I appreciated about HG was that it was one of the very rare Chinese restaurants that made gluten-free food. When I go to Ming's, all I can eat there is steamed chicken and vegetables. But HG had a wide range of tasty gluten-free food.

I do hope that this successor restaurant will continue Simon's gluten-free tradition.

Posted by Expensive, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 29, 2014 at 3:27 pm

9 dollars for 6 pot stickers? Salads as sides for 9 bucks? This place sounds like an utter rip off.

I'll stick with traditional cheap "real" Chinese food that costs less than half these listed prices.

Posted by Richard, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on May 29, 2014 at 8:17 pm

I was born in HK and our family has been going to HG since they first opened since we moved to PA at around the same time. HG was authentically Chinese - our wife, who is Caucasian, would insist on ordering stuff "that are not on the menu," and yet the taste go well with all the non-Chinese friends we brought as well.

Sad to see it go. Simon is one of the best. Not a huge fan of fusion food, so we will see.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 2, 2014 at 8:26 pm

I'll try it, but it seems like an excuse to raise already higher than average prices. Palo Alto has a real problem with restaurants, they all want to brand themselves super-high-class gourmet but high prices do not make great food. The rents are so high that quality and service suffers in just about every Palo Alto restaurant.

I liked Hunan Garden, they were good, the service was excellent, and the food we good too, it was a good value. Seems like they should be able to update and aspire to a bit higher if anyone can.

The whole argument about traditional Chinese food to me seems way overdone. I just know what I like and it's all over the place. Today Chinese food seems not as good as it used to be when I was a kid, and I can only think it has to do with prices and quality because or the competitive rents. It used to be that you could go to just about any Chinese hole in the wall and get great food. There used to a place in Town & Country around where Kirk's is or used to be? And there used to be a place called The Moon Palace that has been sold and reopened under many names down on El Camino near California ... they were fine. Now every place says it's authentic, is twice as expensive and is chock full of big hunks of the cheapest greens you can find.

Hunan Garden was a holdover from that era ... so I hope when they change it will not be for the worse.

Posted by long-time fan..., a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jun 3, 2014 at 6:28 am

OK - we went last night.

The new ambiance is nice, more upscale, a little bare (I think some of the art has not yet been installed), and the new music was a little too "hard" (too loud, with a distracting beat) - which will probably put some old fans off. The menu is nice but hard to figure out. Some direction from our waiter would have been helpful. The prices are noticeably higher. Our meal was good - the shrimp with asparagus was delicious! No tofu was offered before the meal, no ice cream or tapioca after. There was a dessert menu, but seemed to include only more elaborate options. We weren't offered tea or even given traditional cookies at the end of the meal - we should have asked, I guess.

However - while we were eating, we saw another couple come in who were upset by the changes - they asked for Simon (who was not there at the time), and were put off by the new menu selections and new prices. Rather than try to explain the menu options to them - or suggest the "secret menu" (as Jarvis mentioned in the article) - the waiter did not seem to have any empathy for them and did not appear to make any effort to encourage some obviously old fans to stay and try something new. I actually thought about going over to them, myself, to suggest some of the things we had - but they got up and left.

This breaks my heart - it is SUCH a drastic change from the welcoming atmosphere of HG. I am posting this because I hope Jarvis (who we did not see at the restaurant) or his new GM (who we did not see; no one introduced themselves as the new "host") or SOMEONE will try to welcome people, encourage them to try the new place, etc.

The old wait staff is mostly gone. It would be good if the new staff - and new management - realized how critical maintaining SOME of the old customers will be in going forward. There are, I'm sure, a lot of bills to pay for the new decor and much-expanded new staff. I may be mistaken, but to be able to pay those bills, you're not likely to fill up with a sufficient number of new, more upscale customers quickly enough to do that.

There are many kinks to work out in opening a new place; we will certainly go back many times over the next few months to experience the results. We wish Jarvis and the new team the very best. Please, please, though - encourage your new staff to help customers through the transition. We've all seen such drastic restaurant changes result in disaster. Your old customers have sought out other places for Chinese food in the two months you've been closed. If they make it back to try Mandarin Roots - and stay to eat, unlike the couple last night! - they will continue to go elsewhere.

Best of luck to you!

Posted by Chico Che, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jun 4, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I hope the hot and sour soup and egg roll, is still in affect with the lunch special. If not, there will be a very sad, sad, sad customer. Don't let me down sunny boy!

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 5, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Well, based on long-time fan's comment I am not sure anymore if I want to go back and try the new HG. I am sick of new-style Chinese cuisine that is noticeably cheaper in quality and higher in price. I wonder what Chinese people think of the Chinese restaurants in the area. Almost all of them seem to claim to be authentic, but I figure they cannot all be. I think quality ingredients make the food, old-style, new-style - it's makes no difference if the food is cooked well and quality ingredients are used. Now I am unsure?

Posted by long-time fan, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jun 8, 2014 at 7:52 am

OK, for those of you who are unsure about trying the "new" Hunan Gardens (to be referred to as Mandarin Roots now!)

I don't know what options will be for lunch, as I was only there for dinner. And I'm joining a bunch of friends there for dinner this Wednesday, all of whom were VERY fond of the old restaurant, so I'll be trying it again soon!

I would strongly encourage two things:

1) ask about anything you might like that you don't see on the new menu, as Jarvis said in the article they would try to accommodate most requests from the old menu. (I hope your waiter is gracious about your request, and - also - maybe Jarvis will add more of the old favorites back to the menu, if the interest is there!?)

2) GO and TRY the new place! No, it is NOT "old style" Chinese food, but the ingredients are fresh and tasty and the preparation is excellent. We had egg rolls (didn't like how they were fried as much as old ones), pot stickers (same as old, EXCELLENT!), chicken wings (DELICIOUS), kung pao prawns (DELICIOUS), and Empress fried rice (very good). Overall, a good meal, though more expensive.

We know we will miss the "old" Hunan Gardens, but we'll try Mandarin Roots many more times to see if it makes our list of restaurants we visit often!

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