Got Hot Pot?

Dining's an adventure at S.F.'s only Muslim-style Chinese

The continuing wave of Chinese immigrants coming to the Bay Area has sparked a similar swell in the variety of Chinese restaurants. Where a generation ago we had mostly Cantonese, a little Sichuan, and a smattering of Hunan and Hakka places, today a couple of dozen styles of cooking are represented. One of the more obscure and most distinctive of these is Muslim Chinese, represented in San Francisco by Old Mandarin Islamic.

This cuisine dates back to the seventh century, when Persian and Arab merchants started settling in Canton and other southeastern port cities. Their descendants spread throughout the country, intermarrying with locals and developing pork-free variations on the local cooking techniques. In the large Chinese cities, Muslim restaurants often serve dishes from various regional Muslim cuisines, and are very popular with non-Muslims as a change of pace. If you visited one of these places in Beijing, you might find a menu similar to Old Mandarin's.

The scene is often lively, sometimes chaotic, especially when the place is full or the TV set is on. Mirrors along one wall help make the deep, narrow storefront room feel more open, while a goofy mix of chandeliers, colorful Chinese lanterns, tablecloths featuring strawberries, poinsettias, and Christmas trees brighten the space.

People come from all over the Bay Area for Old Mandarin's house specialty, cook-it-yourself Peking hot pot (also known as Mongolian fire pot). First, out comes a portable gas burner, then a big, doughnut-shaped pot, like a giant bundt pan, filled with a delicate broth spiced with dried fish, thick slices of ginger, and star anise. Next come small bowls of a complex dipping sauce of sesame paste, soy sauce, shrimp paste, and who knows what else, and plates of raw meat (most people order lamb) sliced as thin as prosciutto. Now you can start: Grab a piece of lamb with your chopsticks, dip it in the boiling broth until it's cooked to your pleasure, then dunk it in the dipping sauce, and into your mouth.

In short order, whatever other raw ingredients you've ordered arrive. I recommend dumping cabbage, sour cabbage (that is, fresh sauerkraut), tofu cubes, and rice stick noodles into the broth immediately, as they get better the longer they cook and the noodles hold up fine. Spinach and earthy, aromatic tong ho (chrysanthemum greens) cook quickly, so are better tossed in and fished out as you crave them.

Offal lovers, do not miss the lamb liver, sliced thin to cook quickly, or the salted testicles (“lamb eggs”), which start out hard and dry like salt pork, but after a couple of minutes' simmer have an unctuous, mushroom-like texture and a milky flavor. Lamb kidney was good, but didn't work quite as well in this context. These nasty bits were particularly good foils for the optional “leek flower sauce,” a dark green dip with a flavor like oaky red wine. From its placement on the menu, it seemed like “sweet garlic” would be another dip, but it turned out to be whole pickled heads of the clove — interesting, but not very relevant to the hot pot experience.

Once the plates are empty, ask for bowls, and serve the remaining contents of the pot as soup. Unless you've cooked many a plate of meat, the broth may need extra seasoning from the remaining dipping sauce, chili oil on the table, and soy sauce. The price can vary a lot depending on what you order: the broth and dipping sauce are $3 a person, ingredients are $6.95 a plate for meat, $3.50 for tofu, noodles, and vegetables.

If you're not in the mood to DIY, or the hot pot isn't quite enough for your appetite, there are plenty of other choices. For a hearty appetizer, try the West Lake lamb dumplings, a chewy Chinese variation on the Russian pelmeni, with a deep, gamy flavor. On the lighter side, try cucumbers in a dressing of vinegar, soy, sesame, and cilantro, or, if you're adventurous, “meringtled egg tofu”: cold sliced tofu topped with diced preserved eggs, which taste like chicken aspic. Note that if you order everything at once, the appetizers tend to come out last, so you might want to hold off on ordering your main dishes.

“Extremely hot pepper” reads like a joke, but it's a must-try for chili lovers: scrambled eggs with a roughly equal quantity of chopped Serrano peppers, a little ground meat (presumably not pork), dried red chilies, green onion, and lots of oil. Pick out the bitter dried red chilies and the dish is still seriously spicy, but a tasty treat for capsicum addicts. Others may consider this dish more practical as a condiment.

Does hot pot sound good but you're not in the mood to cook, or are you wanting takeout? Boiled lamb with preserved vegetables in warm pot is a ready-to-eat variation. A rich broth filled with lots of lamb, tofu, and rice stick noodles gets a tart edge from sauerkraut and a bright flavor from fresh cilantro. Another good entree is thinly sliced lamb with shaved green onion, cooked in an extremely hot wok to give it a smoky flavor: simple flavors but perfectly balanced. Mandarin lamb is similar, but with bell pepper and lots of cumin: This was one of my dining companions' favorite dishes, but I'll schlep to Milpitas for the superior version at Darda (where they call it cumin lamb).

Sautéed Napa cabbage with dried shrimp doesn't sound like much, but it's one of the best dishes here. The Napa is sliced thin, then sauteed with lots of tiny dried shrimp that reconstitute during cooking and come out tender. “Stirred potatoes with chili” is another surprise: julienned potatoes, very briefly sauteed in chili oil until al dente so that they end up more like a crunchy, spicy salad than a starch.

I tried several versions of the signature “stirred flour ball” dishes, chewy dumplings with diced water chestnuts, peanuts, bean sprouts, and baby corn, with a little sofrito-like seasoning of finely diced celery, carrot, zucchini, and ginger. All proved bland, greasy, and undersalted, overall like generic steam-table Chinese food. Same story for the Peking beef “pie” and the onion “pancake,” fried stuffed flatbreads reminiscent of mediocre peroshki. These really need a drizzling of hot chili oil, or better yet a dollop of the extremely hot pepper.

After such heavy, rich food, dessert is overkill, and the fried sweet cake doubly so. Served warm, this was like a glob of half-baked cookie dough filled with red bean paste and dried fruit. It wasn't bad, but would make more sense as a midafternoon snack with tea.

Watch out for potential confusion on the menu. The hot pot menu in English is an insert that sometimes falls out, so if you don't see it, ask. The Muslim Chinese dishes all appear in the first couple of pages of the menu, items 1 through 73; the remainder consists of generic Chinese dishes that the few proficient English-speakers among the staff may warn you away from. On the other hand, with the exception of the extremely hot pepper, you may safely ignore warnings that certain dishes are very spicy.

Waiters often push the popular favorites hard, so if you want to try, say, sour green sliced fish in your warm pot, be insistent. And if you do try some of those mystery dishes I didn't get to, please, send me a note about it.

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