Recent rants from a well-known restaurant critic could have one easily believing that San Francisco’s Chinese food scene is nearly dead, confined to costly dim sum and lettuce-cup chicken served only in downtown office buildings or on tony shopping streets.
Not true, say I.
Exhibit A: Beijing restaurant. Wedged into a horseshoe-shaped plot of concrete across from a Midas and a 76 gas station, Beijing is anything but tony. Unconcerned with glitz and glamour, the chef here focuses on the action-packed flavors of Northern China.
Beijing is the rare spot that serves jianbing (translated as “street food pancake”), a hearty crepe of eggs, onions, cilantro and sesame seeds with the surprise element (at least for a Westerner) of a thin, fried cracker folded inside. The play of the soft egg off of the crisp cracker makes for a distinctive contrast, like an omelet studded with Popchips.
Also unique is the Chinese burger, a favorite at famed Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, but not an item I’ve ever encountered in the Bay Area. A jumble of vinegared, shredded pork is tucked into a soft bun reminiscent of an English muffin and then liberally sprinkled with cilantro. Close your eyes and you could be eating pulled pig at a backwoods Carolina barbecue shack.
Cumin lamb is a scorcher that can be smelled gunning for you from across the small dining room. Tender, not-too-gamey lamb strips stir-fried with loads of cumin and red pepper initially shocked the palate, but after three or four bites, I was no longer taking deep breaths between forkfuls.
However, the blaze of “Chili Delights with house special sauce” left me breathless. Basically a hash of chopped chili peppers, seeds intact, with a little bit of egg and chicken, it’s only for those who can handle some serious heat.
I thought I could, but found myself inhaling other dishes, including fragrant steamed meatballs and soothing warm pot fish, as chasers. As for the “house special sauce,” I didn’t detect anything resembling sauce, and upon inquiry I received only a dim grin from our no-nonsense server.
Food comes out of the kitchen at a frenzied pace and in no particular order. During one meal, a dozen fennel dumplings arrived last, but they were worth the short wait. Juicy with the faint taste of licorice, these gems sparked yet another round of “Have you ever had these before?” at our table. No one had.
I also had never eaten something called a potato tower, an off-menu item my in-the-know friend equated to Zuni Café’s shoestring fries. It whirled up a foot high like a soaring bird’s nest.
As I picked away bites of the brittle snack, addicted, swiping crumby tidbits through a bowl of sweetened vinegar, my friend told me about a separate late-night menu at Beijing featuring barbecued skewers of everything from beef short ribs to lamb kidneys.
So, no, I don’t buy the argument that our town’s Chinese food has gone downhill. It’s just that to try the most innovative and interesting stuff, one needs to at least occasionally leave his or her comfort zone, both literally and figuratively. Beijing is a great place to start.
Location: 1801 Alemany Blvd. (at Ocean Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 333-8182, www.beijingrestaurant.us
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, late-night street food menu served from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Price range: $3.95 to $12.95
Recommended dishes: Chinese burger ($3.95), Beijing street pancake ($6.25), cumin lamb ($10.95), Chili Delights with house special sauce ($9.95)
Credit cards: Visa, Master Card