Back Burner – Nation of Mandarin

Back Burner

By Karen Solomon

Nation of Mandarin

'IN THE CHINESE community, we are very famous," says Qinghe Li, the waiter and manager of Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant for the past five or six years. He claims that when Chinese aristocrats, politicians, film actors, and directors come through town, or even if they're only as close as Los Angeles, "they always come here to eat. We're famous for our hot pot," or as it's listed on the menu, "warm pot." That doesn't mean the restaurant is getting the recognition it deserves among San Francisco's diverse populations, and Back Burner has its gas to full power to extol its unique culinary accomplishments. Li tells me just 5 to 10 percent of the restaurant's clientele are non-Chinese, many of whom live in its beachside vicinity and most of whom don't take advantage of the best the menu has to offer.

This is cuisine from China's northern and western borders, where the country's culinary influences are mingled with those of nearby Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and parts of India. Dishes are Mandarin style and meant to be shared, but they are prepared in accordance with Islamic law. This means that pork, the staple meat of Asian dishes, is not even a squeal on the menu and that lamb is served copiously in its place. All meat is halal (the Islamic equivalent of kosher), which means, among other things, that the animal was never fed the meat or blood of other animals or given hormones, and that it was slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. All this is believed to yield a healthier, cleaner animal.

Cumin makes a frequent and fragrant appearance. Rice is available, but its alternative is a plate of the Flour Ball with Three Flavors: tiny gnocchi-like dumplings of flour, water, salt, and egg tossed with meat and vegetable. No liquor is served, but the restaurant does have a beer license, meaning you're allowed to bring in your own, Li assures me. This is still San Francisco, after all.

On a recent rainy Monday night, Li and I share a meal as he pops up intermittently to bring out orders from the kitchen, answer the phone, and wait on a dozen or so customers coming in for the restaurant's brisk takeout business. The place is spotless, another mandate of the Islamic religion, and it is decorated with red lanterns, crystal chandeliers, and New Year's cardboard cutouts of the rooster, which hang above the 30 or so seats. The kitchen is oddly quiet, strangely organized, and remarkably calm. And the brightest indication that the food is authentically good glows in the corner: a 21-inch television set blares the news in Chinese, declaring the gospel of good things to come. In between slurps of soup and doing his job, Li tells me the story of the place.

The owner of Old Mandarin Islamic, Xuqun Yang, came here from Beijing about seven or eight years ago. This is his first restaurant; back home he was a jeweler. Yang has asked Li to speak on behalf of the restaurant, because the former questions his own English-speaking abilities (and certainly I know better than to even attempt the Mandarin dialect). Yang is a Muslim and an entrepreneur, and he was smart enough to hire old friends from home to do the cooking, and to hire his wife, the former dim sum chef, to manage operations.

"He probably has other businesses," Li suggests. "But he doesn't tell me, and I don't ask him." Li does mention later that perhaps Yang might want to extend his success with the opening of another restaurant at some point. But, he adds, "I don't think he wants the restaurant to be more popular just now. He wants to be famous for taking care of business."

The "warm pot" is indeed the restaurant's claim to flame, but unless your Chinese is quite good, you won't be able to read about it on the menu. Every table other than ours seats a happy family of four or more enjoying a monster tub atop a gas burner, in which bubble all manner of tofu, beef, lamb, cabbage, and thread noodles in an anise, ginger, and fish-infused broth – clearly a Chinese take on the classic Mongolian hot pot. Diners are given small sieve ladles to remove their steaming treasure, and a bowl of proprietary dipping sauce. Li won't reveal the contents of this delectable douse, but it seems to be a sesame paste diluted with green chive and a fish-sauce base. It is delicious.

Other popular dishes include the Mandarin lamb, a succulent plate of meat swaddled in Chinese cumin's warm embrace (the restaurant has its cumin sent from China), and the ginger-spiked lamb with green onions. The expert proficiency of the dim sum chef shines through in the stunning Peking beef pie, a mammoth triangle of house-made dough rolled thin, layered with succulent marinated beef, and fried into a crispy pancake in copious oil. This, Li tells me, is one of his favorite things on the menu. And paired with warm pot no. 51 – a soup of intense white, beef-bone stock packed with the house-sliced lamb, tofu, thin noodles, and the delightful tang of three week-aged house-pickled cabbage – it makes a satisfying dinner for two.

Of course, Old Mandarin Islamic offers a full menu of more than 150 dishes, including all manner of chicken, mu shu this and that, shrimp, noodles, fried rice, etc. But Li mostly serves the aforementioned half-dozen house specialties over and over again. "Some American people come in and order that stuff, and we'll serve them, but it's not typical," he says.

It's often easy to overlook dessert in a Chinese restaurant if you're not a fan of sweet bean paste and the like, but Li insists that I try the fried sweet cake (zhagao) from the dim sum menu, and I have to admit I share his exuberance. The best thing to do to mochi (pounded rice dough) is to deep-fry it quickly and coat it with sugar, right? Sort of like a Mandarin doughnut? And the only way to top that is to have it stuffed with 12 ingredients – all of which Li won't reveal, but I know there are at least pine nuts, raisins, and sesame seeds in a bean-paste base. This is yet another mystery to savor as it unfolds – gooey and warm, familiar yet exotic, and perfect for a rainy night. Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant. 3132 Vicente (at 43rd Ave.), S.F. (415) 564-3481. Wed. and Fri.-Mon., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Tues. and Thurs., 5:30-9:30 p.m. Takeout available. Visa. Wheelchair accessible.

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