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Food & Drink

Can you handle the heat at this unique Chinese restaurant in San Francisco?

In our food series PFG, Omar Mamoon stops by the halal Chinese restaurant Old Mandarin Islamic in San Francisco's Sunset neighborhood where lamb is the jam and spice is the name of the game.

One of the few downsides of being a roving food writer is I rarely get to be a regular. Most of my job is researching hot new restaurants (aka eating and drinking in copious quantities). When I do get a chance to revisit old favorites, one of my go-tos is Old Mandarin Islamic.

My parents are practicing Muslims who immigrated from Burma to Southern California in the late 1970s. They often took me as a kid to a halal restaurant in Anaheim called Ma’s Chinese Islamic. So when I moved to San Francisco after college and heard about Old Mandarin, it felt familiar. I’ve been coming to this cozy neighborhood favorite in the Outer Sunset ever since. 

Feng Wang and her husband, Xuqun Yang, opened the restaurant in 1997 after immigrating from Beijing with their 14-year-old son, Shuai. Like immigrants before them, the Yangs made a living by turning to the food of their homeland, in their case the cuisine of the Hui Muslims of northern China. (The country is home to some 20 million Muslims.)

“They didn’t speak a lot of English,” remembered Shuai. “My mom is a really good cook, and the restaurant was a minimum-priced business where we could start.”

The Pretty F*cking Good logo is a a hand serving up the title on a plate.
The Yang family poses outside of Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant in San Francisco, which they opened in 1997. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Nearly three decades on, he now helps his parents run the restaurant, which has earned a following among certain celebrities and recommendations from places like the Food Network and the Michelin Guide.

Though its customer base has widened over the years, Old Mandarin remains strictly halal, meaning it only serves meat from animals slaughtered according to Islamic law. It doesn’t serve pork or alcohol.

The menu at Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant boasts delicious classics honed over the decades by the Yang family. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Instead, lamb is the jam here at Old Mandarin Islamic. It comes in all sorts of preparations. If you come in a group, you can all go to town on a Beijing-style hot pot of hot beef broth, into which you can dip everything from thinly sliced lamb shoulder to more adventurous offcuts like lamb liver or even testicles. (I tried these years ago, for the record, and once was enough.)

My favorite lamb comes in more crowd-pleasing forms. Old Mandarin Islamic is famous for its boiled lamb dumplings, which are handmade several times a week by the Yang matriarch, who is still “the heart of the restaurant,” according to Shuai. She rolls the dough, then stuffs it with ground leg and shoulder meat mixed with a generous amount of ginger and zucchini bits to balance the richness. It comes with a side of dark Chinese vinegar that serves as a zippy dipper. 

Lamb ribs come presented steaming and sizzling in an ornate copper pot served tableside. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard
Boiled lamb dumplings are rolled with care by the Yang family matriarch before being cooked. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

People also come for the dizzyingly fragrant stir-fried cumin lamb, which is served steaming hot with water chestnuts for a pleasant crunch. And don’t miss the sticky braised lamb ribs. They’re served in an ornate cauldron over a bed of cabbage, also for texture.

But the real star of the menu, the dish that’s PFG, is a poultry dish called La Si Ni, which means “spicy enough to kill you.” It’s so spicy, so damn delicious, you just can’t stop eating.

You smell the spice as soon as the dish hits the table. Then you see it: the bright green chiles and bits of orange-tinged chicken mixed with bits of scrambled egg. A pool of red chile oil below signals that hell awaits.  

The fiery La Si Ni at Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant is a dish diners won't soon forget. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

OK, no one is actually going to die—probably. But this may be the last thing you want to eat for the night, especially if you’re not used to spicy food.

According to Shuai, a former head chef invented the signature mix of spices after being challenged to create something hot for a family meal. Customers took notice of the staff enjoying the dish and began asking for it, and eventually it made its way onto Old Mandarin’s menu.

The dish is simple yet contains layers of spice and somehow gets better with each bite. It starts with oil fried in an array of dried chile peppers, including cayenne, Chinese long peppers, tiny but mighty Thai or bird’s eye chiles and chile flakes. Eggs are scrambled in the spicy oil with finely diced chicken and chopped fresh serranos and jalapeños. If you’re tolerant to heat and/or missing a screw, you can order the dish “extra spicy,” which will prompt the chef to add habaneros to the mix. But that’s on you.  

You can eat the dish over rice, between crispy fried scallion pancakes, or by itself. Prepare to sweat.

“Some people can’t handle it,” says Shuai. 

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant

🗓️ Mondays & Wednesdays  | 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Thursdays | 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Fridays-Sundays | 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
📍 3132 Vicente St., San Francisco

Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar.