Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant is about as straightforward a restaurant name can get. It is indeed old, Mandarin, Islamic and yes, it is a restaurant. I first heard about this curious place a few years ago, and had been meaning to visit since, but it’s out of the way location (San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district) meant that I always put it off. That is until recently, when a friend who was visiting from Switzerland reminded me, and we’d both been wanting to try it out.
The restaurant is unassuming and deep into the Avenues, but the interior is a whole other story. Arabic script accompanies red Chinese lanterns, and the scents coming from the kitchen smelled more Central Asian than East. My dining companion and I had done our research ahead of time, and we ordered what we’d heard was most popular.
We started with the beef pancake.
Put simply, this was amazing. It was a deviation from the usual green onion pancake that you see at many Chinese restaurants, and the layers of dough were oh-so-thin yet pleasantly chewy. I couldn’t tell what this was spiced with, but it was super savory and oniony.
Next, we had the cumin lamb.
I admit I was a little weary of this dish since most American lamb has a taste and smell I’m not too crazy about. Not only was this lamb an exception, it was amazing. Listen, I know I already called the beef pancake amazing, but so was this. The cumin packed a punch, and the lamb itself was super tender and seared to perfection. The peppers and water chestnuts added a nice textural contrast.
Lastly, we shared the green beans with tofu.
You know when tofu has that perfect, chewy exterior and warm, creamy center? Take that, add loads (and I mean loads) of minced garlic and a handful of crispy green beans, and you have this dish. This might have been a little on the greasy side, but I really didn’t care. It tasted wonderful, and that’s what mattered.
Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant might be out of the way, but it’s absolutely worth the drive. Rarely do I visit a restaurant where every dish is a hit, and even less often do I go somewhere with such a unique niche cuisine. I’m kicking myself for having put off visiting this restaurant for so long, but it’s better late than never, right?