As one of the oldest restaurants in La Jolla, the Mandarin House on La Jolla Blvd. is well known among locals and revered for its unique, flavorful dishes. From humble beginnings in his native China to a chance meeting in Hong Kong, Mandarin House founder John Law had a knack for the restaurant business and delicious cuisine at an early age. We sat down with his son and now-owner, Nelson, to talk a bit more about the early days of Mandarin House, family recipes, and what it means to carry on the legacy of his father.
A Transnational Legacy
Nelson’s father, John, was born in 1948 in a small rural village outside of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in southeastern China. He left the country while it was still under Communist rule at age 12 in search of a better life; he was just the second oldest in his family to escape the harsh climate of his native country. It wasn’t easy, however – he climbed fences, had dogs chasing after him, hiked through mountains, and eventually was able to find his way to Hong Kong, where he found odd jobs working in kitchens. By the time he was 18 years old, he’d had enough experience to become head chef at a big restaurant in the city.
John met his future business partner, Bill, in Hong Kong – he was the delivery boy at John’s restaurant. They unwittingly both moved to London at the same time, and even happened to be on the same flight (if that isn’t fate, we aren’t sure what is). At that point, they decided to stick together and eventually found their way to San Diego in the 70s.
The duo cooked their way through the city and ended up in La Jolla, where the two friends had the opportunity to transform a closing breakfast restaurant into their dream business – a Chinese restaurant of their own, with all the trappings of their native cuisine. That year, 1977, Mandarin House was born.
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“Real-Beijing” Style Cuisine
John and Bill designed a menu with the ingredients they had at hand and the flavors they were used to from back home; in their words, the “real” Beijing style, complete with plenty of Szechuan influences. In fact, many of the original recipes from the restaurant’s early years are still on the menu, including John’s own 100% original, house-made Kung Pao Chicken. It’s made the exact same way today as it was in 1977, though back then it was a bit cheaper ($3.25 a dish!).
That authenticity and taste for originality remains a priority today. All of their chicken broth is made in-house fresh daily, and it serves as the base for several of their soups and sauces. One of their most popular dishes, the Peking Duck, is basted, hung, dried, and then roasted only once a guest orders it; it’s truly made fresh to order, and takes an extra 30 minutes to prepare. It’s served with tortillas and hoisin sauce, and then it’s carved table-side. The egg rolls are hand-rolled, the dumplings are folded by hand, and they make their own dumpling skins – the kind of attention to detail you won’t find anywhere else in San Diego.
One-of-a-Kind Recipes & A Secret Menu
As far as uniqueness goes, there are a few dishes that are found only at Mandarin House:
- Smoked chicken and seaweed (an appetizer)
- The Kung Pao chicken original recipe
- Handmade dumplings
Plus, who doesn’t love a “secret menu“? There are a couple of items that you won’t find printed on the menu at Mandarin House, but the chefs will be happy to make any of these dishes for you – Egg Foo Yun (with their own special twist), Singapore Noodles (sautéed specially with curry powder), and shrimp cakes. You didn’t hear it from us!
Luckily, we got the chance to sample several of their most popular dishes, including the Kung Pao chicken with white and fried rice; the Chef’s Shrimp; Mo Shu Pork (served with four “pancakes” or tortillas so you can make your own roll-up “Chinese Burrito,” a more traditional way of serving it; Crispy Beef; and the Mandarin Soup (egg soup, with chicken and shrimp in it).
There’s a reason generations of La Jollans keep coming to the Mandarin House; this kind of authentic soul food doesn’t come along very often, but when it does, it lasts – next year, the restaurant will be celebrating its 40th anniversary.
You can visit Mandarin House any day of the week for lunch or dinner at 6765 La Jolla Blvd. in La Jolla. They hope to start a brand new Happy Hour (they have delicious cocktails!) soon, so stay tuned for updates!
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