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
4416 18th St.
* Eater says Yank Sing. Earlier Eater and Tastingtable said Koi Palace.
We ate there tonight and were very happy with the food & service and are looking forward to working our way through the menu especially since we were sad about the limited dim sum options at dinner (more is available in the day 10am-2:30pm).
The owners are a couple who live in the neighborhood and after decrying the options in the neighborhood, they decided to do something about it. It's their first restaurant. The Sichuan items on the menu are the wife's family recipes. The wonderful Belgian beer menu is the husband's passion and they work really well with the spicy dishes. When I made a joke that a friend sent me with the comment "Go soon before they dumb it down!", Marv laughed but answered seriously they are really committed to keeping the food true to Lili's originals (and have already struggled with the cooks who are from the South and are not used to putting this much heat in their food).
Pan Fried Turnip Cake - both M & I agreed that these were better than the ones we had last month at Yang Sing.
Pork Shumai - good but the least interesting dish of the evening
Shanghai Dumplings - some of the best I've had and I've had a lot. They were juicy, perfect skin thickness, so tasty. My only (very minor) complaint is that I like it when they give you a soup spoon to slide the dumpling on to, I'm not a fan of eating directly from those foil cups.
House Special Shrimp Chive Dumplings - very good, very fresh tasting with thick & chewy skins (oddly, these don't come in 3 or 4 on the App menu but as a "special" for $9)
Mama Ji's Tofu - holey moley is this SPICY. M & I both broke out in a sweat, blew our noses and drank all our beer & water. It was seriously delicious!
They've only been open for 7 weeks so maybe they've just hit their stride or maybe we got them on a a perfect night. But I think they are a destination restaurant with crave-worthy dishes. I'm already planning our 2nd visit and trying to figure out how to fit it into our regular rotation.
Went for dinner tonight. The full dim sum menu is not available, only a dozen of the most common items listed under "Appetizer" and a few more under "Dessert". Shrimp dumplings had a good flavour and wrappers not soggy or falling apart; BBQ pork buns were a bit dense with not quite enough filling; xiao long bao were properly proportioned and had a good amount of broth, but the filling had disintegrated.
The Sichuan menu is also pared to a dozen items (forget about the dinner link Melanie provided above), though some have variations. We had the dry-fried green beans, which were not up to what I've had elsewhere; they were not crisp-tender enough (as if they'd simply been cooked at a lower temperature) and the garnish was mostly salty with little other flavour. Some of the beans were woody.
Service was friendly but amateur; there seemed to be several people rushing about, but tables remained unbussed. We were told to come on Fri/Sat/Sun during the day for the best dim sum selection. There are four Belgian beers on tap, of which the cheapest is Houblon Chouffe at $8 for a tulip glass, and a dozen Belgians in the bottle at similar prices plus Anchor Steam and Blue Moon for $5. I didn't pay much attention to the wine list. A couple of fresh lychees showed up with the bill, and someone I presume was the co-owner showed up with a sample of the Nam Yu Spareribs, which were, like everything else, decent but nothing special.
I will go back to try weekend dim sum, and maybe some of the other Sichuan dishes on a weeknight, but I am not expecting any revelations. It's a neighbourhood restaurant, not a destination.
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: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8965...
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!
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
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?
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.