“Extremely hot pepper” dish—no joke. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Parsley bean curd. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Mandarin lamb. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
West Lake lamb dumplings. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Steamed sliced fish, AKA “crack fish.” Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Fried sweet cake. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Every year, my friends and I like to get together for our “Lonely Hearts/Singles Scene” Valentine’s Day dinner. I think we end up having more fun than most couples that night. In fact, I know so—the only thing the evening hinges on is having good food and wine, because we already know the company will rock. We usually go out for a Chinese banquet dinner of some sort so we can dine posse-style, and don’t have to witness a sea of two-top tables flourished with roses and the obligatory flutes of Champagne.
This year we decided to roll deep in the Outer Sunset/Parkside and hit up ~OLD MANDARIN ISLAMIC RESTAURANT~. I’m talking Vicente and 42nd Avenue, dog. You definitely want to make a reservation—the space is on the petite side, and I’m going to recommend you show up with at least a posse of six or lucky eight so you can plow through that menu like Genghis freaking Khan.
It’s a family-run and Northern Chinese restaurant that’s been open since 1997—we had papa Yang take our order, and his totally lively and fired-up son Shuai steered us to a few more gems once he saw we weren’t afraid of da spice. You’ll see a number of hot pots bubbling away in the dining room—and what makes them unusual here is the copper pot they use—but we opted for a slew of dishes instead. We had such a notable meal that we’ll assuredly return for the hot pot on another chilly night.
You’ll see the Peking beef pancake ($8.50) on many tables, with thin and crisp layers of dough with a bubbled exterior containing pieces of seasoned beef and onion within—it was teetering on the good side of greasy, although a P90X fanatic would staunchly disagree.
Our table saddled up for the “extremely hot pepper” dish ($10.95), which was a combination of five kinds of pepper (both fresh and dry), plus little pieces of chicken and egg. What a dish, full of flaming glory. Bring on the hurt. A few folks broke a serious and slightly concerning sweat, but it tasted so good that they’d keep coming back for more tongue-flogging punishment. We adored the peppers as a condiment to everything else we ate, even if it meant occasionally taking a break to let your mouth cool off for a hot minute. We found the perfect foil in the parsley bean curd ($6.95), soft and fluffy tofu infused with sesame oil and cilantro leaves. A total table pleaser, for many reasons. We were told next time to order the onion pancake ($7.95) and layer the hot mofo pepper inside, brilliant!
Due to the Northern Chinese/Beijing-style of the cuisine here, lamb figures prominently, along with a very aromatic cumin, which the restaurant imports from China. You are not here for egg rolls and lemon chicken—stay on track, friend. Our table went postal for the thinly sliced pieces of the Mandarin lamb ($10.95)—so much so that we ordered the dish for another round, bring it ON. It’s wildly fragrant with cumin, spiked with garlic and chiles, and tangled with pieces of green bell pepper and onion. Even those at the table who said they weren’t big on lamb or cumin were spotted scooping up the last little fatty bites off the plate. Uh huh.
We also loaded up our table with the West Lake lamb dumplings ($7.95), thick-skinned and rustic handmade dumplings with a savory, juicy, and meaty center—anoint them with a few dollops of black vinegar, and again, make sure the extremely hot pepper is nearby for full, mad flavor maximization. The stir-fried balls with shrimp ($9.95)—little flour balls we were calling Mandarin gnocchi, almost nearing the doughy texture of mochi—proved to be one of the milder dishes. Let’s just say we preferred the dishes with more personality.
Per the very strong recommendation of papa (the subtext was: “You better order this or you’re stupid”), we ponied up for the piping hot bowl of braised lamb ribs ($16.95/$26.95), which were so very tender and homey, but the rich sauce was ultimately quite mild (comparatively) on the seasoning front. Still a pleasant dish, a chipped clay pot full of fall-off-the-bone goodness. The ribs were delicious paired with the spicy garlic eggplant ($8.95), so silky. Wow, yes mom, we had vegetables on the table.
Just when we were close to throwing in the towel, the son started to tell us about the “crack fish.” As soon as you start tossing the term crack around in the dining room, hell, I am gonna pick up what you’re throwing down. The “crack fish” actually has the innocuous name of steamed sliced fish ($19.95) on the menu, but what you end up getting is a bubbling cauldron of sliced rock cod over a bed of Chinese head cabbage, all hiding under a small lake of chile oil and sesame seeds. Sichuan pepper galore. (Wait, I can’t feel my face!) It definitely lived up to its name—we were fishing for pieces of cod in the lake of fire until the very end like a cracker looking for a popped rock on the street.
The finale was a plate of the fried sweet cakes ($7.95), which the family actually styled us with as a gift—so unexpected and kind. (Maybe it was our prize for clearing our plates and surviving the pepper fire storm.) The rice flour buns had a sticky and crackly sugar exterior, with a thick filling of red bean paste, plum, and nuts. Quite delicious after all that mad spice. The cakes were quickly followed by a plate of cool, sliced grapefruit, the checkered flag of our culinary tour de force.
Even though the restaurant has Islamic in the name and serves halal meat (no pork), there’s still Tsingtao offered on the menu. I’m not going to quibble with that. We opted to go the BYOB route, and brought a bunch of wines—from sparkling to rosé—to get us through the meal (we spotted some other tables with some creative BYOB beverages—let’s just say people are funny).
Yeah, it’s a trek to get out there, but the family is very welcoming and kind (although you may be ignored for a little while if they’re slammed, whatever, just keep drinking), and the dishes were above and beyond. And here’s the best part: when all was said and done, we were out of there for $25 a head, and that figure includes leaving a hefty tip. And even though you might freak out with the CASH ONLY sign, they actually take credit cards. There’s also a private dining room for dining room spillover, or maybe you want to make it your own rumpus room. So the next time you want to get your crew together and feast like cumin kings and pepper queens, here’s your spot.