EVERY NOW AND THEN you happen upon a restaurant that—based on its architecture, signage, or defunct drive-thru—clearly was once a fast food place or a chain diner, but has been converted via chop-suey typefaces or Mexican-flag colors to an independently run ethnic joint. Sometimes, when you take a chance, you happen upon first-generation immigrants serving up authentic, mouth-watering masterpieces on each plate. You'll tell all your friends to ignore the shoddy exterior, that it's way better than whatever the food-writer hacks are christening the best in town.
Sometimes, though, a place that looks from the street like it serves mediocre Chinese food is just going to serve mediocre Chinese food.
With a few very notable exceptions, sadly, the latter was my experience at Shandong. I'd been looking forward to trying the new Hollywood District restaurant for a while, and the five-star Yelp ratings kept piling up. It appeared that Lucky Strike had some competition for best Chinese west of 82nd. The online reviews gushed over the hand-pulled noodles and fresh vegetables, and they were right. The noodles were a great texture and everything tasted fresh... what they neglected to mention, however, was it also tasted bland.
The first time I went we ordered ambitiously (I'm of the belief that Kung Pao chicken leftovers make for a great breakfast) and things started out promising. The shrimp dumplings alone are worth going back for; the pastry was soft and delicate, and the shrimp was abundant (I hate when you can hardly tell what kind of dumpling you ordered). Ginger and green onion added a little bite, but didn't detract from the shrimp or that fabulous dough.
Next was the mu shu chicken, the clear favorite of anything I've tried so far— chopped chicken, cabbage, egg, and willow tree mushrooms, served with thin hand-rolled pancakes (which for more we gladly paid extra). Mu shu was a staple of the shitty suburban Chinese bistros of my youth, but it's never stood out for me the way Shandong's did. There's a tendency to over-sauté the ingredients so that everything just tastes like soy sauce, but here, the individual flavors and textures really stood out.
Unfortunately, entrées didn't fare as well as the appetizers. The Shandong bean sauce on noodles was a disappointment; noodles that good deserve a sauce that makes me want to eat more of them. The black beans muted whatever else was going on in the dish—any other spices or flavors were smothered. I wanted to give the noodles another shot, so on my next visit I ordered the tan tan, which was billed as a spicy peanut sauce. I told my date that it tasted like one of the bottled curries from Trader Joe's. She chewed, swallowed, nodded, and said, "Yeah, but not as complex." And she was right.
The meat and vegetable dishes didn't do much better. Unlike the mu shu, which let each component stand out, these dishes all operated on one level, which was far too close to every generic Americanized Chinese restaurant I've ever eaten at.
Shandong is a step up in some ways—it's not the all-too-familiar gut-bomb experience of some of its greasier MSG-laden brethren, and the high points demonstrate some clear skill in the kitchen—but it's not joining the upper echelon either. If you're craving some Chinese staples, by all means, go... just manage your expectations better than I did.