This is a true story. Every time my chopsticks reached for one of those little yodelers, a startling "Quack!" would honk behind me. I reached again and again - "Quack! Quack! Quack!" - before I finally turned around to find an adorable Chinese girl no older than 3 blowing her "Ride the Ducks" kazoo straight at me. Youthful mischief? Perhaps. But I took it as a sign to back away from the beaks.
This might have been a hardship somewhere else, where the funky bits and esoteric flavors are the only attraction. But fledgling Sakura Mandarin's kitchen, run by chef David Dai, is one of those Chinatown rarities that manages to do many things well in its quest for a broader audience (even sushi?! Uh-huh). And it has rightfully won a steady flow of crowds to its lime-green corner space, formerly Ong's, which bustles at all hours of the day with an impressively diverse clientele.
In fact, Sakura's best dish is one that's typically the most mundane - scallion pancakes, which are so flaky and crisp and toasty (yet still just pliant enough), they come bundled on a plate like warm silk handkerchiefs flecked with green onion.
Lion's Head is a less familiar dish to most, but has an equally soulful and accessible appeal. These large pork meatballs are the equivalent of Shanghai comfort food, the fluffy orbs of ground meat slicked in a "red cooked" mahogany gravy scented with soy and star anise.
Given the recent history of Chen and co-owner Angel Lin, both of whom, Chen says, were partners at nearby Dim Sum Garden, it's not surprising to find some excellent "juicy buns" in the steamer baskets here. Also known as "xiao long bao" or "soup dumplings," Sakura's version of the broth-filled beggar's purse may be the city's best yet, with skins sturdy enough to reliably hold the juice, but still thin enough to remain delicate. Sakura makes three kinds (pork, shrimp, and crab), but I was particularly fond of the crab dumplings because the juices inside ran golden with the buttery oceanic richness of hand-picked fresh crab flavor.
If Sakura Mandarin has a real weakness, it would be a lackluster effort on the cliches of Americanized-Cantonese cuisine, from so-so General Tso's chicken in sticky sauce to thick-skinned wonton soup.
Go for the Shanghainese version of wonton instead, and it's another story altogether, the thin dumpling skins harboring a meat stuffing that snaps with cabbage and ginger.
The braised pork shoulder is another Shanghai gem, the osso buco-like ring of meat simmered to melting softness and served over a bed of baby bok choy beneath dark and sweet anise gravy. It can be fatty (that band of skin holding it together is coveted by Chinese customers, and the waitress will mash it in tableside unless otherwise specified), but the tender, deeply flavored meat is worth maneuvering for.
There are some other notably authentic nibbles, especially the cold appetizers that typically start a meal. Among my favorites were the custard-soft cubes of cool bean curd, the slices of Shanghai-braised duck in dark sweet sauce, and the bone-in chicken chunks that come elegantly sealed inside a ribbon-tied jar filled with house-made rice wine and sesame oil - a delicate, almost flowery, marinade.
There are some specialties from regions beyond Shanghai that Sakura Mandarin hasn't quite mastered. There are better places in Chinatown for salt-baked seafood and Hong Kong-style noodles (including old standbys like Lee How Fook, Ting Wong, and Shiao Lan Kung).
But Sakura Mandarin proved itself to also be one of the better Szechuan kitchens around. The "fu qi fei pian" (a cold but fiery beef and tripe salad) brought tender shavings of meat that rang with rich red spice and the anise lift of Szechuan peppercorn. The crispy diced chicken with cucumbers and hot peppers was, with its array of dried red and fresh green chiles, a symphonic blast of textures and searing spice.
And pretty much everything Sakura Mandarin cooked with pork was outstanding, from the shredded lean pork with the lightly smoky garlic sauce to the double-cooked pork belly, whose fat-ribboned meat was tossed with dried bean curd, fermented beans, and a vivid flicker of chile heat. Even the heat-blistered Szechuan green beans got a little porcine boost from crumbled spicy meat.
The fruity chunks of violet-skinned Asian eggplants and the snappy mounds of wilted water spinach are your best bets for true vegetarian sides.
Perhaps my biggest surprise at Sakura Mandarin, though, was the sushi. Ever wary of the multithemed Asia-plex, especially when it dabbles in the specialized field of sushi, I'd sooner eat chicken's feet and duck tongues than raw fish in Chinatown.
But the vivid-colored platters and fanciful rolls coming from sushi chef Edison Wang's glass case were impossible not to notice. Wang is a recent arrival from Manhattan's Sushi Samba, and his "French-style" maki rolls often incorporate fruit, pastel-colored soy wrappers, and large plates artfully painted with sauce.
As I nibbled my way through a series of his signature creations, I found them to be as tasty as they were gorgeous. The Angry Dragon brought spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, and papaya inside a roll topped with miso-sweetened crab salad. The Monster Roll tucked cucumber and shrimp tempura beneath slices of spice-dabbed tuna flanked by two dips - a honeyed green wasabi mayonnaise, and an earthy red momiji spice.
My favorite, though, was Wang's latest version of the Sakura, a teardrop-shaped roll clad in pink soy paper and pinwheeled atop a sauce-scribed "stem" like the petals of a flower (Sakura is "cherry blossom" in Japanese). Stuffed with spicy salmon, mango, and avocado, it also harbored the surprise of shredded dried pork, a sweet and chewy ingredient that tastes something like pork-flavored cotton candy.
It was a bit odd, perhaps, and Wang has since replaced it with crunchy onions. But as I savored this curiously tasty example of Chinatown-Japanese-French fusion, I couldn't help but be intrigued. My little friend with the duck kazoo was still giddily quacking at me one table over. But this was one plate - and one Chinatown newcomer - that I don't plan to back away from anytime soon.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan goes in search of hardshells in Chesapeake Bay crab country. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.