Fried Sweet Cake; Thinly Sliced Lamb for Preserved Vegetables in Warm Pot; Family Style Pancake with Beef
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Old Mandarin Islamic
Reviewed Old Mandarin Islamic: Saturday, January 7, 2006
I absolutely love this restaurant, in fact, it’s one of my favorites in the City, and I’ve returned here at least a half-dozen times, and I’ll continue to come back again and again, even though it’s far from home and we have to drive to get there (it’s worth it!). The food is exquisite -- not just delicious and well-prepared, but cheap and really something different.
I know that I come to this restaurant with biases in place, and I know it’s not for everyone. I am a huge Asianophile, so I am always looking for interesting, unexplored facets of Asian culture in our city. Also, the menu is far too large, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, dinner could, potentially, go terribly wrong. I can’t wait to hear of the experiences of my fellow diners. The restaurant is not used to a white clientele, therefore many things are not spelled out. For example, their hot pot, one of the best dishes they offer, isn’t even on the menu in English. Many dishes are not explained well, such as “Extremely Hot Pepper,” leaving diners in the cold. And unless you’re a very observant eater, you are unlikely to notice that every table is eating, essentially, the same five things - beef pie, warm pot, flour balls, greens. This is very confusing, as the menu offers over a hundred dishes, and it’s unlikely that a first time, uninitiated diner will choose wisely.
This is not a date place or a grand dining hall -- this is for hardcore foodies who would just as well eat off of a plastic plate to enjoy truly authentic, outstanding food for cheap. I know quite well that this kind of eating is not for everyone. Many diners will see lamb and cumin on the menu and not know why, and just stay away, then go with the same Mandarin dishes that they eat everywhere else. I’ve never eaten these things here, but I can only imagine that it would be like going to a steakhouse and ordering the chicken -- it’s just not what they do well.
Let the debates begin!
Occupation: Acquisitions Editor, Book Publishing
Favorite Restaurant: Woodward's Garden
Reviewed Old Mandarin Islamic: Monday, December 26, 2005
Located in an unassuming patch of Sunset district storefronts, Old Mandarin Islamic is no ordinary Chinese restaurant. Stepping from the foggy and quiet sidewalk into the bright and crowded restaurant feels like stepping onto a different continent. Half of the tables accommodate large groups of five or more, and so entire families, including multiple generations, seem to be making it a regular dining stop. For these groups, English is clearly not the native tongue, and the noisy chatter contributes to the lively and casual atmosphere. The menu itself has a few items familiar to those who frequent generic Chinese food restaurants: Hot and Sour Soup, Chow Mein, Fried Rice, Mongolian Beef, However, there is much here that will be unfamiliar, and these are the dishes that clearly attract the repeat clientele.
Diners at nearly all of the tables were focused on large “warm pots,” donut-shaped soup pots surrounding a heat source, which were served with plates of thinly-sliced raw meat to be cooked in the boiling broth. As this was clearly the house specialty, we ordered the small warm pot to share. The waiter recommended #51, Boiled Lamb (Beef) with Preserved Vegetables in Warm Pot. The smaller pot arrived pre-prepared–no-fondue-skills-needed and was extraordinary. The preparation reminded me of Vietnamese Pho, but the flavors were entirely different -- more sour, the broth a bit more creamy. Ingredients included mushrooms, tofu, and tender, just-cooked lamb. Fresh cilantro finished off the top of the dish. Spooning the soup into small soup cups, we polished off three servings in short order. I also followed the lead of other tables in ordering the onion pancake; again, the dish reminded me of another Asian cuisine -- Indian Naan. The flat bread was crispy and chewy, satisfyingly greasy with a toasted onion flavor. Pot stickers were perfectly fine, but unremarkable among the dishes on the table.
In retrospect, I would have ordered another, more adventurous dish -- perhaps the “Stirred Flour Ball” selections, or another item from the Dim Sum menu. Our last dish arrived late in the meal -- a rich assortment of bottom-feeders, including crab, mussels, shrimp, and calamari curled up in a creamy sauce. We could hardly touch such a rich dish served so late in the meal, but it made for an excellent leftovers. The test of such a dish is always the calamari, which was tender and hearty. Take out is available for those looking for a quieter dining experience, but chow hounds won’t want to miss at least one meal among the regulars. Old Mandarin Islamic provides a culinary reminder that China has a vast regional cuisine. With its distinctive menu and high-quality preparations, it reaffirms what is so exciting about living among the many cultures and cuisines of the Bay Area.
Occupation: Analyst Relations Director at a Silicon Valley company
Location: Menlo Park
Favorite Restaurant: Naomi Sushi
Reviewed Old Mandarin Islamic: Friday, January 6, 2006
One of the pleasures of living in the Bay Area is the amazing diversity of cuisines available. Old Mandarin Islamic restaurant looked especially interesting because it was not the typical Chinese restaurant, but one that focused on Western China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, as well as preparing its dishes in accordance with halal or Islamic law. Alas, while the concept looked good, the execution on the evening we were there was less than spectacular.
The room is small but not claustrophobic, with seven tables, three of which had lazy susans for sharing the “warm pots.” It is colorfully decorated but harshly lit, making it not a lingering place. Furthermore, every time the door opened there was a blast of cold air that filled the restaurant. The first problem we encountered was the menu. Rather than calling out dishes by their ethnic origins, it was organized by main ingredient and did not have any supporting descriptions. Unfortunately the gentleman who took our initial order was less than chatty and did not give us much guidance or insights into the food. My dining partner and I wanted to order several items so we could taste a variety of things, but he nixed it. His only suggestion was made in a single declarative statement, “No! Not that! You get this!” In addition, the service was almost nonexistent with the staff hanging out in the kitchen -- which I could see -- chatting noisily and drinking. It got so bad that one of the diners at another table, walked to the kitchen to ask for water.
We decided to split up our meal between traditional Chinese and unfamiliar dishes. The egg rolls (four, $4.50) came on a bed of shredded cabbage with a tiny amount of sweet plum sauce. They were ordinary in taste, greasy, and overcooked. Next was the hot and sour soup (large bowl, $8.95). The bowl was huge, easily could have fed a family of six! Again the taste was ordinary, even bland. Moving out of traditional Chinese we next had the Mandarin Lamb (plate, $9.95). The dish included green peppers, onions, and water chestnuts. It was heavily spiced with cumin and coriander, which gave it a welcoming blast of heat and flavor. The lamb was somewhat tough and chewy. And because of the heavy use of cumin, after a few bites it became a bit “one note.” Due to the spiciness, a side of a yogurt sauce would have been nice to cool the fire. The amount of food was very large, with lots of leftovers. We ended with the family style pancakes with beef ($5.95). Two very large pancakes filled with beef and folded over and cut into wedges. Because the pancakes, while tasty, did not have a sauce other than the soy and chili sauces on the table, it also rapidly became “one note,” which was a common theme with the food. The dishes are not complex, plus the portions are huge and are typically brought out one at a time, so one rapidly tires of the same taste. Because we were inexperienced we ended up ordering a meal that had no coherence, just random acts of food.
While I might go back for research purposes, because the service was so bad and the food disappointing I would not currently recommend Old Mandarin to a friend. It would be easy to fix the problems: train the staff to explain the food and make helpful suggestions, a menu organized by ethnic origins with lots of explanatory text, and tasting menus with small portions of multiple dishes that complement each other.