Mandarin Dynasty

You might not be able to tell from the soft-rock soundtrack in the background or the red-lettered Zodiac placemats under your dinner plate, but Mandarin Dynasty has seen its fair share of celebrity clients in a nearly 20-year existence. Don’t believe me? Check out the autographed Sarah Michelle Gellar magazine cover framed and mounted just left of the cash register. And while you’re there, score prime Hillcrest cuisine for less-than-Gaslamp prices.

There are a ton of Chinese options in San Diego, ranging from to-go cafeterias to formal, ethnic experiences where menus need an English cheat sheet. But Dynasty has a leg up on its competition, because it’s got more options than most other places in the $10 price range, and maintains a humbled mom-and-pop class.

Some of the restaurant’s most popular kitchen orders are the vegetarian entrees — specifically, sweet and sour “pork” or orange “chicken” replaced by superball-sized scoops of mock-meat tofu. Dynasty’s a blue-ribbon choice

KEVIN WU/Guardian

for any veggie addict sick of salads, soups and spring rolls.

Aside from loads of tofu, Dynasty serves an assortment of family-sized meals serving up to eight, noodles (pan-fried or swimming in soup) and moo shu servings (chicken/pork/beef/shrimp versions of sesame stir fry, wrapped in tortilla-thin “pancakes”) — in addition to more traditional dishes from the Cantonese and Szechuan cookbooks.

The Kung Pao Chicken comes in three levels of spicy and two other types of meat. Like most of the dinner meals, it arrives after a bowl of soup with a clump of rice and side order of your choosing (egg rolls or wontons). But the chicken steals the spotlight in a bed of water chestnuts, cashews (albeit slightly spare) and a chili-pepper sauce that’s best ordered especially spicy.

In a large, open, octagonal dining area that feels like an over-sized gazebo, Dynasty’s vast collection of 20-year-old love ballads accompanies every meal — meaning you’ll probably be sipping egg-drop soup to the tune of “Lady in Red.” Throw in some faded barn paintings, a few fake flowers and some floral-print upholstery, and you’ve got the late-’80s living-room aesthetic that makes Dynasty such a charming joint.

All meals come with complimentary jasmine tea and a fried-noodle appetizer to dip in spicy mustard or sweet-and-sour sauce. And, of course, every meal has a happy ending. The check comes with almond and fortune cookies to calm your newfound Mandarin Dynasty separation anxiety.

Parking can sometimes be a hassle with the new Gossip Grill next door, but that’s no reason to miss out on Sarah Michelle’s “favorite Chinese restaurant.”

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