Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant
3132 Vicente St
(between 42nd Ave & 43rd Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94116
China hosts a considerable number of Muslims, who have developed their own distinct and piquant cuisine. Centered around beef and mutton, Chinese Muslim food is richly flavored and always interesting - and a refreshing change from San Francisco's more typical Cantonese specialities. The Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant in the Sunset District fills the gap, serving up traditional Beijing Muslim treats such as beef pancakes, super spicy hot pots, and lamb kebabs, among other favorites. Prices are eminently reasonable, the menu selection is impressive, and quarters are cramped and high-volume- now that's like Beijing!
We fell in love with hot-pot during our visit to China, and we knew we had to have Old Mandarin's version. We selected a hot-pot with two sides: one mild with a subtle garlic-scallion flavor, and one hot with plenty of soy sauce, star anise, and mouth-numbing Szechwan peppers. Hot pot is served with a variety of raw ingredients to dip into the roiling broth, and we selected fresh mutton, prawns, straw mushrooms and spinach. We also tried the garlicky and sesame-infused dipping sauce, apparently composed of fermented tofu. This was just the thing for a fun lunch during a beautiful day in the city. I remain astonished that hot pot hasn't taken off in the USA. It retains fondue's social appeal but is a heck of a lot healthier then the traditional Swiss treat - and I imagine you could easily package an upscale hot pot restaurant with some sort of luxe Western China theme and make it Trendy. Something to consider.
We managed to resist the spicy lamb ribs in a clay pot (though it took some effort,) but we did sample the spicy deep fried lamb kebabs - a flavor that took me right back to Xi'an's muslim neighborhoods. We also tried the onion cake, a deep fried, greasy, and oh-so-Beijing snack. (Admittedly, how can you not enjoy fried bread?)
The Old Mandarin restaurant is almost comically tiny, and a line is pretty much guaranteed on the weekends. It's a family restaurant and it shows, but the servers retain a friendly attitude and food comes out in a fairly timely fashion. You may also be pleased to know that the kitchen is spotless: since guests have to walk right on through to get to the kitchen, it better be. (Trivia: when in China, always look for bathrooms in Muslim run establishments. They will always be the cleanest in town.)
The Old Mandarin restaurant definitely brought back a lot of memories from my visit to Xi'an and Xinjiang, both hotbeds of China's Muslim culture and cuisine, and for your personal edification, I will tell you a little about both places. (Okay, you can stop reading if you want.)
Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province and one of China's oldest cities, hosts a large Muslim population. The city's Muslim Street provides an excellent intro to these people's culture and (perhaps most importantly) their cuisine: street stands sell treats like cumin-drenched lamb kebabs, Babaocha or 8 treasure tea with dried fruits, and Yangrou Paomo, a type of mutton soup served with crumbled flat bread. Hand pulled noodles or lamian with beef soup are also a big element of both Xi'an and Beijing's Muslim cuisine - I subsisted primarily on this tasty dish when I resided in Beijing, and I was happy to see it on the menu at Old Mandarin Islamic. (I'll have to make a return visit!)
Xinjiang, China's far Northwestern province, is the homeland of the Uighurs, a Turkic people who follow Islam and are currently campaigning (with little success) for separation from China's Han majority government. Uighur food features lots of meat and lots of cumin, and it's a pretty winning combination for me - and indeed, the kebabs we had at the Old Mandarin were very similar to those that can be obtained just about everywhere within Xinjiang. Other Xinjiang favorites included sesame-crusted and delicious Nang flat bread and saffron-infused pilau, served with a distinctive local variant on honey beer. One Xinjiang delight that seems to be unknown in the USA is Dapanji or Big Plate Chicken, an intoxicating dish featuring chicken combined with potatoes, onions, garlic, green peppers, beer, and a whole lot of chili and Szechwan peppers. Generally served over lamian noodles, it's ridiculously delicious. I eagerly await the day when a Xinjiang restaurant opens near me. Hint, hint.