DECORATIVE PLATES and tea cups enhance the dining experience at the Mandarin Chinese Restaurant. Next to the salt and pepper is traditional hot oil to spice up the food for those who like it "hot." Place mats with Chinese Zodiac information enhance the dinner conversation. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

Secrets of Success 2012

Pollock Pines’ Mandarin Restaurant has roots in Guangzhou

By From page SOS2 | December 31, 2012

The Mandarin Chinese Restaurant in Pollock Pines has a long genealogy. The popular Asian bistro located at 6530 Pony Express Trail opened its doors in 1988, but much work, sacrifice and risk-taking was required of Alex San and his family both before and since.

It began in the south China metropolis of Guangzhou, known in the west as Canton, the third largest city in China. The city has long enjoyed a worldwide reputation for good food, sporting more restaurants and teahouses than any other city in China. It was there that Mandarin owner Alex San’s grandfather operated an eatery.

As a young teenager Alex was taught in no uncertain terms what is the lifeblood of a proper Chinese restaurant. “Fresh, fresh, fresh!” the restaurateur sings out with obvious passion. “Everything! Vegetables, meat, high quality, very important!”

He still recalls vigorously poring through the world’s largest outdoor market in Canton, searching out only the best for his grandfather’s kitchen.

After the family emigrated to America in 1981, his uncle opened a Chinese restaurant in Auburn, where Alex, his wife, two brothers, two sisters, father and mother worked around the clock to build a solid business, and learn American tastes along the way. “Americans like things sweeter,” reflected the energetic proprietor. Alex managed the kitchen for his uncle.

It was only a matter of time until the uncle retired, and sold the place. Alex, family in tow, took the risk of starting his own. There were victories, closures and a business sale or two, but the development of the Sans restaurants became a reality. The prestige Pollock Pines establishment is just one of several locations between Tahoe and Galt owned and operated by the Sans siblings, including two restaurants in Elk Grove.

Jennie Sans is Alex’s wife. An icon in the community, Jennie runs the dining room while Alex operates everything else. The menu covers most Chinese culinary favorites, but the house specialty is potstickers, a pork dumpling made with celery, cabbage, pork, green onions, and seasonings. Written cards and posted testimonials also rave about the General Tso Chicken, a sweet, slightly spicy, deep-fried chicken dish, largely unknown in China before it was introduced by chefs returning from the United States.

Mostly locals frequent the Mandarin Chinese, although Tahoe-bound visitors do enjoy stopping. Alex loves them all. “They also come from Placerville, Mt. Aukum, Cameron Park, all over!” he enthused. Customer reviews appearing on the Internet are generally positive, citing large portions, quick service and reasonable prices.

What about expansion? San doesn’t want a restaurant empire. He has his hands full with the operation as is. “People say, hey Alex, get bigger, open new locations.” He throws up his hands. “How can I hire strangers to run my own restaurants? The secret is family. Only family gives the necessary hard work and sacrifice.”

San’s daughter Debbie and son Ross are part of the team. However Ross is inclined to finish his education and branch out into a different field. “Not everybody wants this life,” muses San. “But it takes care of you if you take care of it. If you keep your eye on quality.”

The average working days exceed 12 hours, although the restaurant only serves lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Prep work, picking meats and vegetables and cleaning up all have to fit into the schedule of Alex San and his persevering family.

The Mandarin Chinese Restaurant 530-644-2244 is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. No reservations required.

Peter Tyner

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