830 N. Milpas St, Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 962-7833
Hours: Lunch: Mon, Wed-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m., Sat 12 p.m.-4:2- p.m. Dinner: Sun-Thu 4:30 p.m.-9:15 p.m., Fri-Sat 4:30 p.m.-9:45 p.m., Tue Closed
Price: $10 – $20
Nestled in the corner of a shopping center in a remote area in downtown Santa Barbara, Shang Hai is a lucky find. Despite its remote location, the small, family-owned restaurant has attracted locals for the past 26 years, making it the oldest Chinese restaurant in the county. Whether due to its scrumptious cuisine or family atmosphere, one visit is all it takes for one to become a loyal patron.
However, the restaurant’s popularity has not affected the quality of its food or service. The owners, Yvette and Kevin Yin, have taken a hands-on approach to management; working as hosts, waiters and even dishwashers.
“My husband works as a part-time chef and host,” Yvette Yin said. “Sometimes, if we’re short a dishwasher, we have to be dishwashers.”
Yvette’s father Kent Ku opened the restaurant in 1984 and has been working as head chef ever since. Yin credits her father’s dedication to the restaurant’s booming success.
“The food quality is always the same because it’s always my father in the kitchen,” she said. “Any time when [the customers] are here, it always tastes the same.”
Shang Hai is also one of the few local Chinese restaurants that specializes in vegetarian cuisine, even dedicating a separate menu to its smorgasbord of veggie dishes. As the only vegetarian in the family, Yin convinced her father to concoct more appetizing alternatives to lackluster tofu dishes. The eatery’s specialties therefore include vegetarian Kung Pao, fried wontons, seaweed soup, hot Szechwan eggplant, almond soybean chicken and Mongolian soybean beef.
Despite the plethora of innovative veggie platters, Yin said the most popular menu items are still classic chicken entrees.
“Right now, orange-flavor chicken is the most popular,” Yin said. “Everybody loves it.”
The restaurant’s other menu features favorites that range from mu shu, chop suey and egg foo young dishes to seafood, pork and lamb. Although the options may seem overwhelming, Yin said restaurant regulars demand that the menu remains extensive.
“We try to make our menu smaller; we cannot,” she said. “We always try to take out an item and the customer will ask what happened to it so we still make it for them.”
Shang Hai also boasts the freshest ingredients as it receives food deliveries from a Los Angeles company almost every day. The chef also makes all the restaurant’s sauces from scratch with fruits and vegetables, catering its level of spiciness to each customer’s taste.
Even though the restaurant doesn’t draw many tourists due to its isolated location, Yin said locals — some of whom first ate at the restaurant as toddlers and now bring their own children — eat there religiously.
“The neighborhood is getting better and better,” Yin said. “The customers know we’re here so we don’t want to move. … If you have good food, the customers will find you.”
Instead of making it feel cramped, the restaurant’s small size adds to its appeal, causing customers to feel cozy and comfortable. A mirror that spans one of the eatery’s walls makes the room appear larger while partitions give diners a sense of privacy.
Although it isn’t flooded with traditional decorations, subtle Chinese ornaments including a Buddha figurine, bamboo blinds and watercolors of a Chinese opera add to the authentic appeal.
“In our décor, we don’t have too many traditional elements,” Yin said. “It’s simple and clean.”
However, Yin said she made sure to decorate the locale with some basics, including an orchid, an orange, a pineapple and a piggy bank that, according to Chinese custom, will help the business thrive. Customers also receive complimentary fortune and almond cookies.
“If you eat candy in the New Year, it means sweetness stays all year,” she said.
3955 State St, Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 683-2158
Hours: Sun-Thu 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Price: $10 – $20
Upon walking into Mandarin Palace, I would never have guessed that the restaurant served Chinese food. Aside from an orchid and a bamboo plant that had a hint of Oriental flare, nothing about the décor reflected what type of cuisine the eatery served.
Although the ornate chandeliers, Roman columns, faux marble sculptures of cherubs playing instruments and paintings of flowers and European city scenes made the setting appear more sophisticated, the fixtures nevertheless seemed out of place. Overall, the clashing antique, Victorian and modern decorations will confuse customers more than enhance their dining experience.
Despite its odd blend of classical architecture and contemporary seating, the restaurant’s food was fairly tasty and affordable. The main course I ordered, General Tao’s chicken, tasted like something from a fast food restaurant, but the soup and appetizers were clearly homemade.
However, waiter Stan Lei, who has worked at Mandarin Palace for about a year, said the locale’s chicken is what attracts most locals and tourists to the establishment.
“The most popular dishes for young people are things that are deep fried, [including] sweet and sour chicken, sweet and sour pork, orange chicken and mandarin honey shrimp,” Lei said. “For other ages, chicken with veggies, chicken shop suey.”
Lei also said other Chinese restaurants charge much more for the same food.
“Actually it’s kind of cheap for lunch combos for the stuff you get,” Lei said.
Customers can eat a filling lunch consisting of a bowl of soup, egg roll, fried wonton, rice, salad and their choice of entrée for as low as $8. Their dinner special — also served with soup, at least three appetizers and large entrée — is also reasonably priced at $13 – $18 per person.
The menu features innovative appetizers and soups, including cream-cheese fried wontons and West Lake seafood soup. Aside from its predicable chicken, pork and beef dishes, the restaurant serves abundant seafood dishes such as scallop and shrimp Szechwan. Furthermore, Mandarin Palace specializes in many fish and duck entrees: ingredients that are uncommon in most Chinese-themed restaurants.
Moreover, Lei said the eatery tries to cater to vegetarians and vegans.
“We have soy chicken, soy beef, soy pork,” he said. “The soy chicken is made with soy beans, but tastes like chicken. It’s kind of good for vegetarian people.”
Even though the family-owned business boasts almost 20 years of experience, the restaurant is under-staffed, forcing customers to wait too long before ordering, paying the bill and receiving a receipt. The few waiters who were working seemed inattentive and apathetic.
Despite my poor first impression, Lei said locals praise the staff’s customer service skills.
“The customer service is very good,” Lei said. “We talk to customers a lot, we make friends. They feel comfortable and come back and eat here.”