A few months ago, as we waited in vain for a table at Flour + Water, my uncle described something he'd eaten for lunch: the "extremely hot pepper" (#28) at Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant, essentially, he said, a massive jumble of dried chili peppers with, in a little protein-flavoring agent role-reversal, a small quantity of chicken mixed in as well. Although my uncle is a demonstrative lover of hot food who grows big swaths of peppers in his Fairfield backyard, he reported (with a grin) that he’d managed only a few bites of the dish. He'd packed it up though, he said, envisioning, perhaps dangerously, that he might keep the capsaicin-logged concoction in the fridge indefinitely, and occasionally pluck out spoonfuls to add to his weekly stir-fries.
He told me all this because he knows I like hot food too. My tendencies border on the anti-social. I tell servers I want dishes advertised as spicy to be "hot, for real," and enjoy powering through the molten reality with which I'm soon confronted -- even if my dining companions are put off by my sweaty face and pained countenance. At El Metate, I'll ask the owner for a cup of the habanero salsa he often keeps in the back. At Vientiane Cafe in East Oakland, I’ll take a nibble from one of the whole Thai chilis interspersed throughout a pile of rare beef larb -- just to see if it’s hot. Of course, it’s hot, I find out five seconds later. The larb itself was delicious and just hot enough. Shouldn’t that be enough to know and savor? No, I need to taste the heating agent, to put my hand on the burner. That moment invigorates me, and I revisit it when I can: paring off a half-centimeter-length sliver of pepper, downing it, and waiting gleefully for lightning to strike my tongue, chest, and gut. There’s an element of daredevilry at play, which is an odd impulse for someone normally quite adverse to risk-taking -- afraid of heights, wary of germs, and, when possible, disinclined to drive on busy highways.
As I flipped through the restaurant’s menu on Sunday though, the “extremely hot pepper” didn’t call out to me -- perhaps because I’d breakfasted on thick Casa Sanchez chips, homemade guacamole, and sriracha sauce. If I were handy, I’d affix a bottle to a sprinkler set-up and have red ribbons spitting around the breakfast table every morning, but after the wake-up call I’d given myself, I needed a balanced lunch, not a saucer of lava. Entranced by the promise of authentic, Halal-ified Beijing cuisine, we ordered too much food -- a customary decision given our habit of picking at leftovers before bed-time -- sipped some tea, and surveyed the surroundings.
The restaurant has some quirks. Water comes in plastic cups of varying sizes and hues. Mine was green and translucent, but I saw several customers sipping from flimsy red “keg party” numbers and tall, clear, non-disposable ones too. The store-front outside seems scarcely wider than my outstretched arms. A mirrored wall inside makes the room look twice its size, but it really boils down to eight tables or so, a tiny counter, a clean-looking kitchen you can peer into, and a bathroom located beyond the kitchen. When we arrived towards the end of Sunday’s lunch service, the place was full of adorable children, and for the entirety of our meal, they scampered past our table, to and from the bathroom in the back, which didn’t bother us at all. The owner was gregarious. Initially, he stopped by our table every few minutes. He hovered, asking questions, and then stepped back briefly, before leaning in to hover some more. He was nice though, not nosy, and once the dishes started landing on the table like chili oil-dosed bombs, they were all we could focus on.
The "warm pot with sour green sliced fish" (#54) began with frills of Napa cabbage nestled in a clear, sparkling broth. Perfumed with sprigs of cilantro, the liquid had a slightly sour, vegetal flavor; it recalled fresh pickles, specifically a sauerkraut that had been just briefly brined. Logs of soft, lovely tofu and boneless sections of flaky white fish poked out from under the cabbage, and cellophane noodles squirmed at the bottom of the bowl. A few drops of chili oil added a gentle, burning undercurrent, balancing out the sourness whenever it began to build. As we hadn’t guessed the "sour green" in the first dish meant cabbage, more followed -- hot and sour-style (#40). Cloaked in a smoky, sweet sauce studded with dried chili segments and ginger, each thick, slippery band of cabbage was soft and yielding, melting in the middle, yet just firm enough on the outside to hold together.
The beef pancake (#62) arrived, a misshapen satchel of bubbly, brown-blistered dough wrapped around thin, salty beef pounded or pressed into sheets. Green onions wafted from each rough-cut slice. It was surprisingly hard to eat neatly. The layers of pastry and meat fell apart with a little prodding, and grease gushed out. The flaps of dough were quickly slick and chopstick-resistant. Looks weren’t the point though, and fingers worked just fine. The lamb dumplings (#63) looked like pale pot-stickers awaiting a dip in hot oil. The skin was thick and chewy, but not doughy, a jewel of juicy, chives-scented lamb lurking within each tidy sack. They were fantastic with chili oil and a touch of black vinegar.
It was a rare journey to the edge of the city, a drive down Portola, then Sloat, and its rows of cookie-cutter houses, a flat, spare, washed-out landscape so unlike the one I usually wander. The Mission wasn’t warm by the Mission’s standards that afternoon, but when I emerged from the car on Sunday afternoon, stepped past the intersection of 43rd and Vicente, and felt a cool mist speckle my face, I inhabited a different world. At that moment, I felt blessed by San Francisco, its ridiculous micro-climates. It was the edge of the city, it was the edge of August, the time when tomatoes just a few miles inland start to pucker and weigh down their vines, and I was going to eat a "warm pot" -- not because someone on Yelp recommended I do so, but because it just felt right.