Very few aspiring musicians, if asked their wildest dreams, would say "I want to grow up and become a cruise ship singer." Similarly, few aspiring restaurateurs would say "I want to open a restaurant in a strip mall."
Yet that’s what most do. There are only so many vacant Victorian homes licensed to become charming bistros, so many warehouses abandoned by dead industries we can transform into Blade Runner-y temples of modernist cuisine. You don’t read about strip-mall chefs in many magazines, because art directors loathe the building-next-door blandness. Very few TV shows are filmed within their orderly squares of asphalt and stucco.
What they lack in sex appeal, they exceed in functionality. They are the get-life-done hubs for locals who live in neighborhoods that don’t financially gut them. Chain restaurants first colonized mini-malls decades ago, and still hold provenance. But some of the best local, independent restaurants in any city lie tucked between a nail salon and a Chipotle, as deserving of your cravings as they are undeserving of your Instagram.
Royal Mandarin is one of them, a design-backward rectangle of no-frills satiation that has, over the last 40 years or so, sold millions and millions of salted-pepper chicken wings. Every neighborhood has its addictive substances, and National City has the "No. 3" at Mandarin. As we enter, we see catering tubs piled with ungodly amounts of them, as golden brown as the face of a Florida retiree, ready to be dealt into the streets. They are the catnip at National City potlucks, PTA meetings, and family reunions.
You’d do well to not expect westernized butt-kissery at Royal Mandarin. No one can get to the point quite as efficiently as a server at an old-school Chinese restaurant. They don’t introduce themselves. Is their name going to help you eat here? No, it is not. Take a seat. Here’s a menu. They have confidence that you’ve eaten at a restaurant before, and can handle this. You could view their brusqueness as uncaring. Or you could see it as a charming refusal to put a wall of small talk between you and their famous wings.
We order four soda waters, and are served four huge plastic cups of Sprite, with no ice, lukewarm, halfway to flat. We order a plate of salted pepper wings for the table. They land less than two minutes later, steaming. You get the sense that wings are made relentlessly around the clock, ordered so frequently that they never sit around.
One major key to a good chicken wing is to render the fatty skin, to transform it from blubber to an almost snack-chip crispness. And Mandarin’s make an audible crunch as you bite, like a chicharron. But it’s the seasoning in that prairie-brown coat, flecked with crimson pepper flakes, that sticks with you—not just salt and pepper but a bass note of spices and umami. I have no idea if Mandarin uses MSG, but that might explain the primal yes-ness of the flavor here (and study after study after study has proven that MSG is not bad for you, if this is the case). Large segments of fresh green onions are nestled between the wings—a sharp, green spike of acid that’s perfect foil to the deep fry.
The No. 3 is an undeniable star in San Diego’s wing ecosystem, the best we taste on a day that included visits to four places heralded for their wings. This one’s going to be hard to beat, but this wing quest—which is far more epic and time-consuming than originally imagined—goes on.
Royal Mandarin, 1132 E. Plaza Blvd. #205, National City