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Lili "Mama" Ji just wants to feed you the food she likes to eat. In the month-old cafe that she opened in the Castro with her husband, Marv Woatla, she serves up a full menu of dim sum and Sichuan dishes, along with Belgian beer, Black Jet Bakery pastries, and Ritual coffee. It works, despite the strange amalgam of cultures and mostly inattentive service, because the enthusiasm and charm of the owners make you feel right at home.
When Ji and Woatla are in the house, their friendliness carries through the whole restaurant. When a server forgot about our order of sticky rice, Ji came over and personally apologized, joking about the laziness of her niece, the server. A few minutes later Woatla came over with another apology and a box of Black Jet cookies in hand. It was a rather outsized gesture for a mistake we didn't realize had occurred until we were done with the meal ("Didn't we order sticky rice?" someone asked, through a dumpling- and spice-induced haze), and it brought to mind that Monty Python sketch about the dirty fork, but the owners' sincerity was endearing. And the cookies turned out to be great: the coconut moist and chewy, the almond crumbly and sweet.
At a place like this, it's easy to let affection for the owners influence the food, but at its best the dishes reach the heights of the great restaurants in the Richmond or San Mateo. The Sichuan menu is served at night, while the picture-heavy dim sum menu is served all day and features all the items you'd expect, though it rarely ventures into the realm of exotic.
4416 18th St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
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The dim sum chef is imported from Coi Palace, and his training is evident in dishes like the pork shu mai, which were as perky and plump as you want them to be, but so rarely are. Steamed spare ribs were mostly bone and devilishly slippery, but were worth the effort of eating for the sticky black bean sauce coating them, whose pungency grabbed your taste buds and didn't let go. Fried shrimp balls came encased in a nest of crispy wrapping, but once you made it past the coating, the shrimp filling was fresh and abundant.
Dumplings faltered a little. Shanghai dumplings had too little soup and too thick wrappers — they were chewy and rubbery, the opposite of the light pockets of warm liquid at a place like Kingdom of Dumpling. Same with the har gao, shrimp balls, which in an ideal world have nearly transluscent wrappers inbued with a rosy glow from the shrimp; here, they had a persistent gumminess that overpowered the delicately flavored seafood. Pot-stickers had interesting sparks of ginger in the pork filling, but there wasn't enough of it and too much wrapper.
Do order from the dinner menu if you can — the numbing spices meet all your expectations for Sichuan cuisine, and it's a hell of a lot easier to get into than Mission Chinese. You have to pick through a swarm of spicy peppers to find the bits of deep-fried meat in the classic Chongquing chicken, but the meat itself wasn't too spicy. More so was something appropriately called "numbing fish," a dish with the same chili-heavy presentation but a ratcheted-up heat level. And the ma po tofu had so much chili oil that it sends you into a fit of coughing if you inhale the wrong way, but if you let the bean curd dissolve on your tongue for a minute, the essential sweetness of the sauce came through.
Belgian beer turns out to be a surprisingly nice complement to spicy food — the rich beer draws a sugary blanket over your tongue. On tap there's Chimay and Chouffe, a Belgian IPA that's fruity and full-bodied, and there are several more Belgians available by the bottle. After one goblet, though, I wanted something less flavorful. The only Belgian not represented is the flowery hop bomb of Sierra Nevada, and I wished there was at least one crisp Asian beer represented.
But that's the thing about Mama Ji's. It defies characterization. In the morning, the neighborhood comes for pastries and Ritual Coffee and Five Mountain tea. Dim sum for lunch is always a treat, the late afternoon and early evening bring in folks lingering over a few orders of dumplings and tea or beer, and the dinner crowd is as much heat-seeking Sichuan aficionados as families bonding over pork buns.
When Ji and Woatla aren't in the house, the energy is decidedly lower, and it's hard to overlook missteps in service, or the fact that often dishes come to the table so hot that they threaten the integrity of the roof of your mouth. It's important to let everything sit for a few minutes before diving in, or you might scald yourself with, say, the molten filling of custard egg dumplings, which bled out runny and thin and could have benefitted from a few minutes of congealing. And despite a recent remodel, the place still has a hole-in-the-wall feel about it: There's no decoration to speak of, and the white walls already bear the scuffs and nicks of the chairs.
Then again, it's good-to-great dim sum in the Castro at a reasonable price. What more do we want?