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Located in San Francisco's Richmond District, Mandalay's brightly colored signs can be seen through even the foggiest of the city's summer nights. Nestled between 5th and 6th Avenues on California Street, this authentic Burmese and Mandarin restaurant offers a variety of tantalizing options that both vegetarians and carnivores will appreciate.
On weeknights there is rarely a wait to be seated, and tables are spaced at a comfortable distance in a warm, homey atmosphere. Once diners are seated, the wait staff immediately brings over hot tea to enjoy while browsing the menu.
Appetizers at Mandalay include samusa, pot stickers (meat or vegetarian), chicken satay and balada. My dining companion and I started with the balada, a crisp and comforting fried pancake accompanied by a mild yet aromatic curry dipping sauce. After the appetizer we moved onto a salad. Choices include tea leaf salad, ginger salad and green papaya salad. We tried the mango salad, which has strong citrus flavors with a hint of cilantro. The salad also included fried onion chips which, at times, overshadowed the other flavors.
Mandalay's entrées include noodle soups; seafood dishes; vegetarian dishes; dishes with chicken, beef, pork, or lamb; and fried noodle and rice dishes. For our first entrée, we wanted one of the many plates featuring prawns, but how could we choose between mango prawns, basil prawns, rainbow prawns - which include mangos, pineapples and an assortment of vegetables - and the other various selections? We eventually decided on the walnut prawns, which featured nine large prawns fried and coated in a coconut cream sauce. The plate was sprinkled with honey-coated walnuts and both the prawns and the walnuts were served on a bed of crisp rice noodles. The prawns were succulent and meaty, and the creamy sweetness of the sauce complimented their flavor, which was contrasted by the crisp rice noodle bed. This dish, while somewhat gluttonous, was worth every heavenly bite.
For our second entrée, we sampled the Mandalay special noodle with tofu, one of the house specialties. This dish is comprised of egg noodles, fried onion and garlic chips, tofu, cucumber, grounded split beans and the chef's special dressing. The special noodles, while not nearly as exciting as the prawns, were a good noodle dish to accompany the variety of other items we ordered.
For dessert, there are many menu options that would nicely top off the meal, such as mango or green tea ice cream, fresh mango slices over sticky rice (when in season) and fried bananas, but we chose to be more adventurous and try the paluda. We were not sure what to expect, but within minutes we were presented with a soupy mixture of coconut gelatin, tapioca, rice pudding and raisins all swimming in a coconut milk broth. While it was an interesting choice, our dessert drinks - the ginger lemonade and the Thai iced tea - turned out to be the highlight of the last course. The ginger lemonade was zesty and refreshing, garnished with mint leaves, an orange slice and a cherry, and the Thai iced tea was sweet and thick with just the right amount of coconut milk.
If you visit Mandalay be sure to discuss any dietary requirements or preferences with the helpful wait staff. All dishes can be made salt-free and the spiciness can be altered from mouth-burning to completely mild. Many of the menu options include fried items, such as tofu or shrimp, but can be altered if you prefer less oil. Many dishes also include garlic and onion chips, which provide a powerful blast of flavor any garlic or onion lover will appreciate. However, those who are more sensitive to these stronger flavors may want to request the chips on the side and add them in a smaller quantity. For those who live nearby, Mandalay also offers take-out and delivery.