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The Mandarin
* 1/2
Out of a possible five
Black Pepper Beef lunch entree from The Mandarin in Maplewood Plaza.

Lunch your best bet at popular Mandarin

It has been a staple in Maplewood Plaza on Stellhorn Road since 1983, but until my recent visits I had only eaten at The Mandarin once and that was more than a decade ago.

It often takes home top honors for “Best Chinese Restaurant” when publications or websites conduct polls, and I have friends who swear by it. But with the rapid growth of Asian cuisine in and around Fort Wayne in recent years, it was easy for The Mandarin to slip through the cracks.

When I did finally go back, I learned that the best time to visit The Mandarin was at lunch. The entrées are smaller one-plate meals half covered with rice and the other half with the dish of choice. But those entrées also include choice of soup and a sampling of appetizers – a spring roll, one hot garlic chicken wing and a piece of crab Rangoon – so it was plenty filling.

The chicken wing was sticky, sweet and enjoyable, the crab Rangoon was so-so, but the spring roll was fantastic. It was heavily wrapped in rice paper, had a little ground pork, but was full of green cabbage, which gave it a real pop of freshness. I would have gladly traded the other two appetizers for two more rolls.

All of those little treats were far better than the shrimp toast I had during my dinner visit. The toast was dripping with grease, the shrimp topping was hard and rubbery and there was no sweet shrimp flavor at all.

The hot and sour soup looked the part with a lot of egg and tofu, which was finely diced – a nice touch. It had a lot of black pepper and was topped with crispy fried batter bits. The pepper gave it a strong flavor and it was tasty, but it could have been a bit more sour.

The Three Delicacies Soup – available only in the evening – was a better choice than the hot and sour or the bland egg drop, but it cost extra. Its light chicken broth in this seafood soup was filled with carrots, pea pods, broccoli, mushrooms, noodles, small scallops, shrimp and pieces of imitation crab.

Another positive lunch twist was the rice. It was steamed rice, but it had peas, carrot and egg just like fried rice. I always prefer fried rice and will pay extra for it, but the added ingredients to the steamed made that unnecessary. This thought was reaffirmed after I ordered fried rice with my dinner entrées because it wasn’t up to par. It looked the part – a light brown color – but it didn’t have any soy or wok-charred flavor.

The Black Pepper Beef was the best of the lunch entrées I tried. The pepper in the brown sauce permeated every bite of this dish, which had nice snappy white onions and green peppers and meaty mushroom pieces. The sliced beef was OK, but was lifted by the sauce and fresh vegetables.

The signature Mandarin Chicken also had a nice array of vegetables – broccoli, mushrooms, carrot and onion – and was enrobed in a flavorful brown sauce, but the chicken had an odd texture. The meat was firm, but not tough, and also not overly tender. It sort of reminded me of a brick-pressed chicken breast.

The dredged and fried chunks of chicken in the Orange Chicken were fine – crisp outside and tender and fatty inside. The chicken was coated in a somewhat gelatinous, sticky sauce that was very sweet but didn’t have much orange flavor.

The sauce coating the fried shrimp in the Yu Shan Shrimp dinner was much better. Again, it was more sweet than spicy, but a smattering of princess peppers did bring some fire to the dish. It had crunchy green peppers and celery, thinly sliced onions and sliced button mushrooms, which was a poor substitution for the tree ear mushrooms the menu description promised.

Any substitution would have been better than the Green Paradise Chicken, which was one of the worst Chinese dishes I have ever tasted. The menu said it was “white meat chicken with assorted green vegetables in a light, delicate sauce.” There was white meat chicken, and three green vegetables – broccoli, celery and pea pods – along with onion, water chestnuts and baby corn.

I guess “delicate” means flavorless because this sauce had none. It was not just bland; it was thick and viscous and reminded me of Vaseline. The chicken was flavorless and had no texture. It was as if it had been boiled. I literally took two bites and left the rest.

When my server came to clear plates, she asked about the practically untouched portion, and when I flat-out told her it was terrible, she responded with, “Yeah, the white sauce is really dull.”

Did she offer me a replacement entrée? No. Did she charge me for the uneaten meal? Yes.

There were other service issues. The Mandarin had a nice children’s menu with Mandarin Beef, Almond Chicken and Sweet and Sour Chicken, which my kids chose. My server told me to get the chicken from the evening buffet, which, by the way, I passed on after seeing how small it was and how dreadful-looking the offerings were.

And when I got up to the bar, there was no sweet and sour chicken on it. When I informed the server, she seemed irked at me for pointing it out and snapped back that it would be there soon.

Though it has been around for years, the interior of The Mandarin had been updated. It had black ceilings and dark stone tile floors, which gave it a somewhat modern, clean look. It also was not too busy with Asian knick-knacks in every corner. Even the bamboo lamps that hung over the tables were pretty cool.

The tables and chairs were very outdated, however, and the booths were tattered and torn, so there is still work to be done.

It will take a lot of work for someone to convince me to go back to The Mandarin, too. It wasn’t better and in many cases was worse than what many of the newer take-out places offer – and offer at a better price.

Restaurant: The Mandarin

Address: 5978 Stellhorn Road

Phone: 485-9175

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Mandarin Chicken ($6.75 lunch; $9.95 dinner), Yu Shan Shrimp ($10.95), Black Pepper Beef ($7.50 lunch; $10.50 dinner), Green Paradise Chicken ($9.95), Three Delicacies Soup ($3.25)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.