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Jun 2, 2013 09:45 PM

Mama Ji's in the Castro for Dim Sum & Sichuan, San Francisco

A stream of excited text messages keep pinging on my phone from a friend who's eating there tonight and can't believe there's now real Chinese food in the Castro. Originally started as a pop-up in Queen Malika, it closed and just reopened taking over the space as Mama Ji's.

The new chefs started three weeks ago. The dim sum chef is from Yank Sing* and dim sum is available for lunch and dinner. Friend says this is not a dim sum destination, but it is good for evening dim sum.

What he seems more enthused about ("tasty, tasty!") is the Sichuan dinner menu. I'm studying the photo he sent of Chongqing chicken --- battered, deep-fried, then dry-fried with seasonings --- and there's a big pile of Sichuan peppercorns accumulated on the side of his plate. He says the hua jiao are very fragrant, best quality he can remember. The boneless chicken is flavorful thigh meat with a thin batter. He also recommends the ants climbing a tree.

He's just got coconut agar jellies and lychees as the complimentary dessert. Guess that's the end.

Who's tried it? Can this be true?

Sichuan dinner menu

Mama Ji's dim sum

Mama Ji's
4416 18th St.
San Francisco
(415) 309-6661
Monday: 9:30-6:30p
Tues-Sun: 9:30-9:30p

* Eater says Yank Sing. Earlier Eater and Tastingtable said Koi Palace.

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  1. Tried the dim sum pop up some months ago and was underwhelmed, but the place was quite inviting on a sunny Saturday morning. Will check out the dinner soon.

    New dim sum menu is far more complete, but still looks rather safe and conventional. Sichuan menu is certainly interesting but falls in with an earlier concern I expressed that apparently authentic Sichuan will become conventional-ized and dumbed down as it spreads widely in areas without native/knowledgable clientele.

    1. I thought: I had dim sum and Sichuan on Saturday, but at two different restaurants.

      I checked out the dim sum menu and those prices are eye-popping!

      1. went when it was a pop-up, found it bit underwhelming too in terms of taste and a bit over priced. will go back now that it's having regular hours.

        1. It is true!

          Just down the hill from us, so we had to try this.

          Ma po tofu ordered with pork. Really quite good, far closer to Chengdu than to mall America. Some ma la, strange appearance of a few carrots and peas, but all in all quite flavorful. Not quite up there with Spice II or Mandarin Gourmet in Palo Alto or Little Sichuan in San Mateo. Decent.

          Fish flavor crispy eggplant. We didn’t see the “crispy” when ordering. Fried with a batter, but that was not the main problem. A very thin coating of a vinegar (quite strong) and ginger sauce, with little hint of the requisite chili bean paste. I think I have seen this unfortunate preparation before somewhere. One of us disliked it so much that the left overs did not come home.

          Chungking chicken -- almost outstanding, darn close. Excellent intense flavors of garlic, ginger, star anise permeate the crispy skin and lots of sichuan peppercorns and chilies. Juicy leg meat. I ma la-ed on the Sichuan pepper until my mouth was number than I have ever experienced. Really excellent dish. But boneless, which bothers me in my continuing fight to maintain some authenticity in good ethnic restaurants despite the pressure of the clientele.

          Bad news, dinner time dim sum drew in at least half the crowd. Good news, maybe the dim sum will keep pressure off the Sichuan dishes and allow them to continue to be reasonably authentic.

          Service was a bit confused but friendly. Our English language challenged server never told us about the special (which apparently may become a menu item) 绍子江豆 pickled chopped long beans with pork, which looked good on another table. It would have been much better than the eggplant and probably would have resulted in a more positive review from us.

          The place was crowded and our 3 dishes came out with long delays between, but this is better than everything thrown on the table at once.

          All in all, yes, Melanie, there is a decent Chinese restaurant in the Castro.

          Menu picture attached. It is no where near as extensive as the web menu Melanie linked to. I wonder why.

          Also a picture of the Chongqing chicken.

          Overall pretty ok, though I wouldn’t make a long detour

          2 Replies
          1. re: Thomas Nash

            Great report, thanks for checking it out!

            1. re: Thomas Nash

              Tom, thanks so much for the rundown and corroboration. Still hard to believe, isn't it? I'd love to know where the Sichuan cook hails from.

              My friend said that the place was empty at night until dim sum service was added in the evening. Survival strategy. He had sent me a postscript saying that Mama Ji's isn't a wide offering of Sichuan but enough to get excited about. Also that it's not as good as Chef Liu in Fresno or across the board tasty/consistent as Chef Ma in San Jose. But very solid effort for San Francisco and he didn't feel as greased over as when he eats at Spices!

              No dan dan noodles?

            2. If they can maintain clients at nighttime, I think this place will do very well. Weekend brunch was packed. They're still getting the kinks out service-wise, but the owners were friendly and checked in on every table a few times. Ritual coffee and two beers on tap, including Chimay. They know their audience.

              Xiao long bao typically stink at dim sum places, but the alleged Koi Palace and/or Yank Sing pedigree of the chef led me to get the "Shanghai Dumplings." These were served on aluminum tins, and though they were cooked the right amount, there was barely a drop of soup inside and the skins were way too thick, especially the bottoms.

              They were out of XO sauce, so I got the wonton noodle soup instead. It was light and my favorite thing there:

              Shanghai vegetarian bun could have used more filling, but was decent. It was filled with pressed tofu and green vegetables.

              Shrimp and cilantro dumplings had large chunks of shrimp and a good taste, but like just about everything else, the wrappers were too thick.

              They list no-MSG on the dinner menu, but my tongue tells me otherwise on the roast pork buns. I could be wrong.

              One of the owners, the wife, is from Sichuan province. Not sure specifically where...

              The Sichuan menus sounds pretty typical except for "Nam Yu Spareribs" which is "braised in a sauce with red fermented tofu (nom yu)." I looked at a few Sichuan menus from around town, and don't see 南乳排骨 (Nán rǔ páigǔ) anywhere. Has anyone had that before or at Mama Ji's? Red fermented tofu might be the most "challenging" ingredient in the Castro, so I await a report!