I had not been to San Francisco since the first annual FoodBuzz convention in November 2009, and I was ready to get my grub on. Thanks to all the food TV these days, I had in my mind an image of a place that seemed eerily familiar–an Asian restaurant, off the beaten path, with some very spicy and delicious dishes. Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern or one of those TV hosts had eaten there, and it looked to be right up my alley. My friend Gabe and his Chinese-American wife Kelly had already chosen a spot for our dinner that night, and as we rolled up to it from dark, nearly deserted surroundings, I could see that this was the place I had pictured in my mind’s eye: “Islamic Old Mandarin,” as its lighted sign proclaimed in English sandwiched between Mandarin and Arabic characters. If there was any place I wanted to eat at tonight, this was the one. I just smiled at my hosts and said, “Great minds think alike.”
Inside the well-lit interior, there were only a few tables. At a large round one, a group of elderly Chinese men shared a Beijing Style hot pot–one similar to what I had just had in Sri Lanka at Juchunyaun Restaurant. Thinly sliced meats and plates of veggies and noodles, which were meant to be cooked in soup broth in the punch-bowl shaped object in the center of the table, gave their meal the air of a real feast. A couple of Chinese girls picked at some stir-fry dishes at another table. The smells were, of course, tremendous, and my mouth was already watering before I even opened the menu.
I must say, I have never seen so much lamb on a Chinese menu, and this must have been the Islamic influence. We ended up getting the stir fried lamb with scallion as well as the boiled lamb with preserved vegetables in a warm pot. We also ordered an onion pancake, the egg plant in spicy garlic sauce, and one of the chef’s specials, a dish that definitely had my interest piqued, the “extremely hot pepper.”
I have not eaten such tasty and flavorful Chinese food in a long time. From the first bite into the layered pancake, which was crunchy 0n the outside and moist within, this was a meal to savor and remember. The lamb warm pot was rich and soothing, and the preserved vegetables gave it a nice sour flavor–almost like sauerkraut. The tender slices of lamb in the lamb with scallions dish practically melted in my mouth, as did the eggplant. And the extremely hot pepper, a dish of different kinds of chilies, chopped up and stir-fried with pieces of egg and slivers of chicken, certainly lived up to its name. As spicy as it was, however, it had a depth of flavor that you do not find in dishes that are meant to scorch your mouth. I think it was the addition of the sichuan peppercorns, which slowly numb your mouth to the capsiacin (i.e. active ingredient) in the peppers, and which also allows you to eat more of the dish. Washed down with a cold Tsing Tao beer, this was a perfect first meal for San Francisco.
Gabe and Kelly, who live in the predominantly Asian enclave of Innersunset, pointed out a lot of great places to eat as we drove to Old Mandarin. But Old Mandarin itself has a pretty extensive menu as well, so there will be plenty of new dishes to try the next time around. And there definitely will be a next time!