This week's tablehopper: damaged goods.
Chilaquiles Veronica at SanJalisco. The culinary cure for a broken heart. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Hey there, happy Friday. Although I am actually a bit heartbroken today—yesterday I had to make the hard decision to total out my beloved Alfa Romeo. Ends up the repairs (estimated at $7,400, egad) were going to exceed the value of the car, even after I convinced my insurance to raise the car’s value more than their original assessment. A total rock and a hard place. Anyone who has driven an Alfa, or ever loved a vintage car knows what this feels like. Yeah, crap. And dealing with insurance for a few weeks has totally worn me the hell out.
So after a day of emotional eating yesterday (thank you for comforting me, chilaquiles at SanJalisco, and grazie to Guido for polpette and lasagne), I was thankful for a morning of working out in Alamo Square with my trainer. Yeah, it’s stupidly beautiful outside today. If I had my CAR, I’d be driving out to the beach with the top down for some fresh air, but it looks like that’s out of the cards for now. Pfffft.
Tuesday night, my friends and I held our annual Lonely Hearts/Singles Scene dinner, so I thought I’d share a quick writeup of our fantastic feast. It was one for the books. I also have a bookworm and 707 Scout for you, check it out.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a lot of juice today. Just pissed off and pretty sad. Fortunately going to go dancing late tonight and shake it. So I’m gonna sign off, see you next Tuesday, sweeties.
Established Restaurant Reviews (it's about time we met...)
Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant
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.
Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant - 3132 Vicente St. San Francisco - 415-564-3481
Wine Country Buzz (it’s what happens there)
Two More Eateries for Downtown Napa
By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.
To judge from the first two months, 2012 is looking like another banner year for new restaurants in the Napa Valley. In addition to St. Helena’s two high profile newbies opening in the next few months (Goose & Gander in the former Martini House space, French Blue on Main Street), and the new Turkish/Mediterranean Tarla Grill next to the AVIA Hotel in Napa, two regional American spots are expanding downtown Napa’s restaurant range at the north end of town.
CIA graduate Curtis Lindley and his wife Tara plan to open NAPA VALLEY BISCUITS by the end of February in the long-vacant spot previously occupied by Frankie’s Deli. Lindley’s grandfather owned and operated a fried chicken restaurant in east Texas while Lindley was growing up, and now that he’s done stints at places like Solage and Martini House, he wants to replicate that kind of quality homemade comfort food in this new venture. He makes all his own barbecue sauces, salad dressings, ketchup, and jams from scratch, but unlike many other (read: ALL the other) Southern comfort food establishments in Napa Valley, Lindley’s restaurant will price its downhome meals at attainable, everyday levels—a half chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and all the fixings will cost $10. Yes, ma’am. Keep an eye out for breakfast biscuit sandwiches, pulled pork sammies, fried chicken and waffles, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles, red velvet cake, root beer popsicles, sweet tea, and vintage sodas. The plan is to serve breakfast and lunch every day starting at 7am, plus dinner on Friday and Saturday nights from 5pm-9pm. Sounds like Soscol Cafe is about to get some stiff competition for the broke and hungover crowd. 1502 Main St. at Napa St., Napa.
Several major players in the Lark Creek Restaurant Group are venturing into the food truck world with PASTRANOMY, a classic East Coast deli-themed truck. The feisty Napa Planning Commission reluctantly granted a use permit to the project once the backers agreed to repaint all the parking spaces in the private lot where it will live on a permanent basis, and change the truck exterior from a mesmerizing display of pastrami porn to a far less distracting tan background with maroon lettering and silhouette of customers waiting in line. (No joke. See the Napa Valley Register’s coverage here.) While the truck’s signage may have lost some titillation points, its menu still sounds promising: hand-sliced pastrami, corned beef, and Reuben sandwiches, plus cheesecake and Dr. Brown’s sodas. No opening date has been announced, but the permit is good for 12 months. When it’s ready to rock, the deli truck will be parked in the lot at the corner of Main St. and Clinton St. in Napa.
Book Reviews (another place for your nose)
Salt: A World History: by Pete Mulvihill
Don’t forget: the book mentioned below is available at 20% off for tablehopper readers for two weeks following this mention at Green Apple Books—simply use the code “tablehopper” at checkout (either at the store or online) for your discount.
Salt: A World History Mark Kurlansky (Penguin)
Since the excellent crop of food and cookbook releases this past winter, things have been kind of quiet in our cooking section. There’s a new vegetarian book from Nobu, but it’s not screaming for my attention—it’s pretty, but pretty haute. (By the way, Plenty, our favorite vegetable cookbook of the last few years, is back in stock after being gone for a while.)
Which brings me to an old favorite: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. First published about ten years ago, it’s one of those “little big” books, a book that takes a seemingly narrow topic and illustrates a wider window on the world and its history.
From trivial tidbits (the word salary is from the Latin sal for salt) to exhaustive chapters (like the one on the gabelle—the French tax on salt), Kurlansky keeps things moving throughout history, always using salt as a narrative thread.
Digest the whole book and either become the bore at your next cocktail party, or limit yourself to an incredible anecdote or two. Either way, Salt is a great window into world history, told charmingly and exhaustively. As the SF Chronicle said when the book first came out, “This is terrific food writing; like fleur de sel, something scarce and to be savored.”
Thanks for reading.