Two seasoned restaurateurs have added a personal touch to the Asian-inspired menus at their newly opened Midpeninsula restaurants: At Nee Lau's The Mandarin in Menlo Park, the menu is all about Asian fusion dishes that are slow-cooked, while the Thai-style fried chicken is the headliner at Brandon Poon's Roost & Roast in Palo Alto.
The pandemic may have expedited Lau's plans to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant, but when it comes to executing his vision at The Mandarin in Menlo Park, it's all about slowing down — some of the restaurant's meticulously prepared dishes can literally take days make.
Lau said his eight treasure duck, for example, must be ordered at least two days in advance. Preparation includes the delicate business of deboning a duck and stuffing it with glutinous sticky rice, peanuts, black mushroom, dried shrimp, scallops and salted egg yolks — all while ensuring the skin stays intact.
The tea-smoked duck needs to be brined for 72 hours, stewed and simmered, and finally dried and smoked.
Lau gives a heads-up to those who order the whole fish in spicy bean sauce, which also requires a lot prep time — and patience. The rock cod requires 30 minutes to simmer so that the flavor can permeate to the bone, he explained.
"People say location, location, location, but for me, it's quality, quality, quality," Lau said. "I'd rather have a customer wait than rush a dish that's not perfectly done yet."
At The Mandarin, specialties like eight treasure duck and golden crab appear alongside a mix of comfort foods like General Tso's chicken, Mongolian beef, crab Rangoon and ... fortune cookies.
"Some people ask, 'Why are you doing fortune cookies?' You know what? People like it. And fortune cookies (are) something I like," Lau said. "I want to do pan-Asian."
Lau plans to eventually expand the menu to include more Cantonese and Japanese items that reflect the dishes he was exposed to while growing up working in restaurants and traveling across China while working in the high-tech industry.
In the kitchen, Lau has enlisted the help of chef Rui Young, who trained in China and specialized in Szechuan cuisine at San Francisco's Sichuan Home and Z&Y Restaurant. He also plans to bring chef Ming Li from Milpitas' Koi Palace and San Jose's Mayflower Restaurant on board.
Lau started in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher in Redwood City at age of 14, just after his family immigrated from the Guangdong Province of southeast China. By the time he was 18, he was managing the nearby Juban Yakiniku House on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, which recently closed. Lau remembers the restaurant serving up some of the first premium Japanese A5 Wagyu beef in the area.
Along the way, Lau tried different dishes at local restaurants with his bosses and has since come to appreciate all sorts of food.
"Trust me," Lau said, "I eat a lot."
He wants customers to also be able to try things that are new to them.
"If people want to eat dishes they haven't eaten before and they can't get it, come talk to me," said Lau, who recently held a soft opening for his new restaurant, located at 1029 El Camino Real in the former home of Black Pepper, which closed during the pandemic. This month, Lau is aiming to secure a beer and wine license and hold an official grand opening.
"There's tradition, and there's a new generation. And they can work together very well," Lau said. "With food, there's no boundaries."
The Mandarin, 1029 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; 650-391-9811. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Thai-inspired fried chicken is the star at Roost & Roast.
"I figured in the Bay Area, you have your hot chicken, you have your Korean fried chicken, your Japanese fried chicken — but there was no Thai fried chicken," owner Brandon Poon said.
Roost & Roast aims to change that. The restaurant, which opened at Palo Alto's Town & Country Village shopping center last month, specializes in making Hat Yai fried chicken, named for the southern Thailand city where the dish originated. Available as a meal with sides or à la carte, the batter is made with potato starch, resulting in a texture that's airy and crispy. Barbecue and popcorn chicken are also on the menu.
Roost & Roast also serves up egg-topped pad krawpow (stir-fried basil with chicken, pork or tofu), as well as pad Thai rice noodles, fried rice, salads and roti (flat bread).
"Here we try to do things traditional," Poon said. "We still use a mortar and pestle, palm sugar and coriander. We do a lot of things by hand."
Poon said the inspiration for his menu came from street food he tried in Thailand while visiting the town where his mother lived after immigrating there from Cambodia.
Many of the restaurant's menu items are based on his mom's recipes, Poon said.
Though Poon just recently opened Roost & Roast, this isn't the first restaurant venture for him or his family.
In Mountain View, Poon previously operated Buffalo burger bar on Castro Street. His parents ran Express 7, a "ma-and-pa Chinese restaurant" on East Middlefield Road that Poon later re branded as the fast-casual Asian eatery Srasa Kitchen.
The family operated a restaurant at the Middlefield location for 17 years before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted them to refocus their business model.
Poon said sales they had counted on from tech workers dropped precipitously during the pandemic. They received a COVID-19 relief grant, but "it wasn't quite enough for us — we still had to walk away," Poon said.
Ramping up for a new restaurant means going"back to square one," Poon said.
"We built a successful business in the past. ... It's a new set of challenges, but it's doable," he said.
Rather than serving 700 customers a day as they did pre-pandemic, the family business now serves about 100. Starting out new, that's to be expected, Poon said.
"It's just learning to start over again that's the biggest challenge. ... This is our attempt to come back," he said.
They're finding a flow. Some days the food sells out, and on others, there's a minimal number of customers. Hiring is especially difficult as the restaurant industry faces a labor shortage.
"Right now, it's just hard to find staff. It is a true family business. I'm working, my father's working, my mom's working," Poon said. "It's a true small business going on right now while we try to figure everything out."
Roost & Roast's arrival in Palo Alto marks a homecoming for the Gunn High School grad and his family.
"It's nice to finally have a business in the area where we grew up," he said.
Roost & Roast at Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real, Suite 161, Palo Alto; 650-485-2395. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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