Ventura County Star

Mandarin Express spices up its Chinese dishes with tasty international accents

Eric Parsons / Star staff 
One of the more popular offerings on the 386-item menu at Mandarin Express in Agoura Hills is the Raspberry Captain Morgan Rum Chicken, priced at $16.95. Eric Parsons / Star staff

One of the more popular offerings on the 386-item menu at Mandarin Express in Agoura Hills is the Raspberry Captain Morgan Rum Chicken, priced at $16.95.

Mandarin Express

Location: 5015 Kanan Road, Agoura Hills. 818-991-9831

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Impressions: Small, tidy spot, order at the counter; efficient and knowledgeable service; wide range of creative Chinese-fusion cuisine.

What's hot: Crispy Shrimp Rolls, Pecan Shrimp, Raspberry Captain Morgan Rum Chicken, Turmeric Lemon Grass Beef, Calamari with Korean Pear Puree.

2 for dinner

Starters >
Crispy Shrimp Rolls ($14.95) + Wor Wonton French Style Soup ($5.95)

Entrees >
Turmeric Lemon Grass Beef ($16.95) + Pecan Shrimp ($17.95) + Calamari with Korean Pear Puree ($17.95) + Raspberry Captain Morgan Rum Chicken ($16.95)

Tab for two >

We felt like explorers when we walked into Mandarin Express, a tiny, tidy food outpost in Agoura Hills.

Located just south of Highway 101 in a compact Kanan Road shopping center, the restaurant was recommended to us by a reader for its fusion cuisine. I checked out the Web site, and my interest was piqued by the menu's range of culinary ingredients and styles.

It's a Chinese restaurant at heart, but also "speaks" French, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Korean and Indian, with a bit of Cajun dropped in for good measure.

The biggest surprise for us was learning that Mandarin Express has been holding forth for 20 years at its spot "behind I.H.O.P. and Jack in the Box." Chef Dan Chang and his partner and front-of-the-house manager, Kim Truong, briefly co-owned a place in Newbury Park, but left that partnership to establish Mandarin Express on their own.

The ambitious menu has been embraced for takeout: Part of the eatery's charm is that it's a convenient stop-off for those heading up or down the freeway.

But location isn't the only lure. There are more than 380 items on the side of the menu that offers poultry, pork, beef, shrimp, calamari, fish fillet, jumbo scallop and shrimp, noodles and rice. Flip the menu over and there are another 155, with similar preparations but featuring tofu and "mock" versions of chicken, pork, duck, fish, shrimp and beef, plus stir-fried vegetables and vegetarian pastas.

We arrived at lunchtime, when there are plenty of lunch specials in the $10-to-$12 range, including a main dish, rice and beverage. We were so intrigued by the unusual preparations listed on the menu, however, that we ended up with dinner-size entrees, each of which could easily have served two.

While we were still checking out the posted lunch specials, Truong came along and did her best to find out what we liked, offering multiple -- and forceful -- suggestions.

We pointed to one item, and she shook her head.

"Mediocre," she declared, guiding us instead to dishes she knew were popular among her diners. After conferring with my friend, and with Truong, we came up with a good spectrum of what Mandarin Express can produce.

Her suggestion for a starter was the crispy shrimp roll with peanut sauce ($14.95). We decided we also had to try the wor wonton French-style soup ($5.95 for a small bowl, which Truong thoughtfully had divided for us into smaller bowls).

The crispy shrimp arrived in a huge, artfully arranged mound, a forerunner of things to come. We didn't count the rolls of long, pastry-wrapped and deep-fried shrimp, but there were plenty. The peanut sauce was pungent with a sweet-sour base, and the shrimp and their wrappings were remarkably nongreasy.

Our little soup bowls were crammed with wontons, vegetables and other goodies, and the broth reflected the multiple flavors. When we asked why the soup was "French," Truong pointed to the shallot slices in the bowls.

We ordered four entrees and ended up with enough food to feed an army at the restaurant, and another one at home. But we didn't regret getting acquainted with any of the dishes.

There was Raspberry Captain Morgan Rum Chicken ($16.95), with a sweet-and-sour sauce ladled over the bits of fried chicken. Likewise, Turmeric Lemon Grass Beef ($16.95) was wonderfully aromatic; the flavor-infused beef made an immediate good impression that was further enhanced by the generous portions of sauteed pepper strips, mushrooms, onions and green beans.

After looking at some of the more unusual shrimp dishes -- strawberry-peach and Asian beurre noir sauce were among the choices -- we were persuaded by Truong's palpable enthusiasm for Pecan Shrimp ($17.95), an off-menu item.

She was right again. The shrimp, slightly crisp and sugary on the outside, were paired with big pecans, all blended into a sauce that was sweet and, ultimately, irresistible.

Finally, the Calamari with Korean Pear Puree ($17.95) arrived with a thin slice of pear topping it, the subtle pear flavor not too obvious in the tangy sauce over the crisply fried but tender calamari.

We thought we were done ordering when Truong asked if we wanted rice and I replied that white rice would be fine. But she pointed to the fried-rice options and convinced us we had to have Thai Curry Pineapple Cashew Fried Rice ($9.55), which also was delicious.

Chef Chang himself came out for a few minutes, curious, no doubt, about the two crazy ladies who were ordering so much food. His approach to cooking doesn't just cross culinary borders, it takes precautions while doing so: With a surgical mask lowered under his chin, he rhapsodized about the creative aspect of his cooking, and the search for just the right ingredients to carry it out. Then he headed back to the kitchen, ready to please faithful fans and recent converts.

Rita Moran visits restaurants unannounced and pays for her meals. If you know of a new, unusual or just plain good restaurant, please contact her at