Mandalay hardly needs a plebe like me to review it. But here I am, and I’ll try to do it justice.
We ordered the ginger salad and my husband got his old standby, nan jhi thoke. I was in the mood for something new, so I got the chicken #12: chicken with pickled mango. “How spicy do you want it?” asked our waitress brusquely. “Very spicy,” I said. She leaned in ominously: “Are you SURE?” “Yes,” I said confidently. “I’ve been here before.” I know what to expect when I come to Mandalay: food so hot that you won’t be able to taste anything but spice for days afterward. Due to a necessary overconsumption of water there, I have found myself in some regrettable situations during a post-Mandalay lag in Metro service. Plan accordingly. Whatever you think is spicy now, you are wrong.
The ginger salad came first. “It smells like old socks,” remarked my husband, reacting to the copious fish sauce (though he will have you know that he didn’t find the stench of socks offensive). Don’t be afraid of the stink; as with all Southeast Asian food, the fish sauce adds a critical savoriness. Mandalay also offers a vegetarian version of all fish sauce-containing dishes, but don’t be fooled by their kindness. Embrace the smell. The ginger salad tastes of fresh cabbage and spicy ginger, with peanuts and crispy fried shallots. It’s a perfect appetizer.
My chicken with pickled mango is not a letdown. A part of me feels ashamed that I talked a good game about my desired spiciness and I’ve now been served something that is unequivocally very spicy. I’m not sure that there’s any verbal warning that I can issue that could prepare the masses for Mandalay-level spicy. By my own doing, this dish is now so spicy that I have a hard time picking out any other flavors. The chicken is cooked in a deep red curry. I think there’s onion in there? And something Christmas-y, like cinnamon or allspice maybe? The bits of pickled mango are salty and sour all at once. I proceeded to drink approximately a half-gallon of water while I ate tiny bits of rice to try to alleviate the burn. It was all for naught.
Years ago, the first time my husband and I came to Mandalay, he ordered Nan jhi thoke. As a creature of habit, he continues to get it exclusively every single time we come here, and usually refuses to share. Like, actually, when we bring our friends here, we have to order two plates of it just so my husband can have his own. I wish I could fault him for this. Nan jhi thoke is served room-temperature with a thin fish sauce-based dressing, crushed peanuts, and bits of dark meat chicken. He also ordered this very spicy, but it was somehow mild enough for me to use to cool off my mouth after my chicken curry. I could probably eat this every day for the rest of my life.
Price: $20 per person.
Bottom line: I’m never disappointed by Mandalay in terms of their variety, quality, or the seriousness with which they add spiciness. This place is not for the faint of heart or the heartburn-prone, but it is the standard by which I judge all other Southeast Asian restaurants (Ahem, Bad Saint) as well as the jewel of Downtown Silver Spring. Word to the wise: if you, like me, consume massive quantities of water during this meal, make sure you make a pit-stop before you leave.