Mao’s Kitchen serves a princely meal at proletariat prices
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
Whether they’re cozy bistros or bright, contemporary places with shared tables, restaurants are usually themed to create a friendly, personal atmosphere. In many cases this evokes nostalgia — for a grandmother’s kitchen, real or imagined, a tavern or pub, or a merry, loud dive from college days. In other cases, the draw may seem more obscure, like the Venice restaurant that evokes a Chinese communist worker’s canteen.
Mao’s Kitchen is decorated with posters of peasants working the fields, happily operating machinery or just posing proudly, but not actually eating; the clientele is obviously there for another purpose. The place attracts a young, diverse crowd, and a steady stream of take-out orders indicates that the place is liked for more than its décor. The menu is long on agitprop names (Model Citizen Noodle Soup) and on reassurances that what you’re ordering is high-quality — the words homemade, organic and natural show up frequently and there is an unusually strong range of vegetarian dishes.
We decided to start with a green onion pancake, eggplant stuffed with shrimp (Eggplant Pamphlet) and a bowl of spinach, tofu and black mushroom soup. The onion pancake did not start things off well — when made properly these are light and crisp with a gentle sharpness, but the one we had was slightly doughy and actually didn’t have much onion flavor. The eggplant was much better, soft inside with a delicately crisp skin, served with a soy-onion sauce and a corrosively spicy chili-and-mustard mix.
The star of the starters was the soup, which had an intense mushroom stock with a slight smoky flavor. It was much better than the typical stock you find at Chinese restaurants outside Chinese neighborhoods, and the spinach had been added at the right time — it wasn’t overcooked, which is often the case elsewhere. The mushrooms were not the usual flavorless button mushrooms either. Though this soup is simple, it was expertly made and delicious.
Though the restaurant was full with a long line outside, the kitchen here has its timing down, and our other items arrived in quick succession — the Szechuan noodle dish called Dan Dan Mian, a fish dish called “Mao’s Hometown” and Weiwuer lamb.
Dan Dan noodles are usually a soup in China. It’s a drier dish here, but either way they’re delicious — a variety of vegetables tossed with pork or beef in a tangy chili-sesame sauce. The noodles at Mao’s Kitchen were homemade and had a springy texture, and the sauce with finely chopped spring onions was delicious. We had ordered the dish medium and it was just within the comfort zone of the self-identified spice wimp at our table. If I go back without her, I’ll ask them to dial it up to hot and enjoy the blast of flavor.
I wasn’t quite as much a fan of the Mao’s Hometown dish because its smoked tofu and fish were more interesting but were junior partners to the bell pepper and onion. With just a bit less bell pepper this would have been delightful, so if I order this again I’d ask for it to be toned down.
There was no such problem with the Weiwuer lamb, which like many northwestern Chinese dishes had a strong but balanced cumin flavor. The shredded lamb was fried with cashews, celery, tomato, onion and jicama — the last not usually found in Chinese cuisine, but adding a pleasant apple-like crunch.
Beer and wine are not served at Mao’s Kitchen, but a variety of teas are, both traditional and herbal. Those who like alcohol with their food can go around the corner to the market; we picked up a bottle of Smoking Loon Sauvignon Blanc and enjoyed the way it worked with the spicy flavors.
Dinner at Mao’s Kitchen was within the price range of the proletariat — our bountiful meal for four ran just under $60, a bargain anywhere but a marvel a block from the beach. The service is brisk but not rude; the servers are constantly on the go, but took enough time to answer questions. Mao’s Kitchen is several rungs above the experience of the workers whose lives are celebrated on the wall art, and the experience is a delightful oddity to coax diners away from Main Street and Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
Mao’s Kitchen opens at 11:30 am daily and closes at 10:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and at 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Street parking only. No alcohol served, but no corkage fee. Menu online.
Mao’s Kitchen 1512 Pacific Ave., Venice (310) 581-8305 maoskitchen.com