Szechuan fare nicely hot, hot, hot at MaMa Ji’s 

click to enlarge Authentic Szechuan: The zippy Chongqing chicken at MaMa Ji’s in the Castro is based - on home recipes from Lily “Mama” Ji’s - mother. - EVAN DUCHARME/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Evan DuCharme/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Authentic Szechuan: The zippy Chongqing chicken at MaMa Ji’s in the Castro is based on home recipes from Lily “Mama” Ji’s mother.

It's an encouraging sign when, after my first review visit to a restaurant, I immediately look forward to the second. Such is the case with MaMa Ji's, which serves dim sum during the day and Szechuan cuisine at night.

MaMa Ji's dim sum menu is full of stalwart, tried-and-true items cooked by a former chef of Koi Palace, the temple of dim sum in Daly City.

It was relaxing to eat dim sum on a quiet Monday morning -- an experience you definitely can't get at Koi Palace, which bustles with flying waitresses. The fragile, handmade rice rolls were ethereal and delicate, dissolving in the mouth. And the steamed pork buns were full of a tiny dice of sweet and smoky pork, while the bun itself is sweet and fluffy.

As lovely as the dim sum was, it's the evening menu of authentic Szechuan and Hunanese items that I swooned over.

There is a scarcity of good, authentic Chinese food in San Francisco, a lack that Lily "Mama" Ji herself felt before she opened her restaurant on 18th Street a few months ago.

A Castro resident for almost a decade, Ji missed the cuisine of her childhood in Szechuan province. The recipes on the menu are her mother's.

Which is probably why her food is so unapologetically recognizable -- and appreciated by in-the-know Chinese food lovers.

One such food lover, my dining companion, had a pronounced gleam of pleasure in her eyes whilst eating the Chongqing chicken, which is littered with whole chilies bright as coals, the big chunks of chicken dipped in a batter still laced with star anise and thin quarter-size coins of ginger.

MaMa Ji's restaurant, true to its roots, uses chilies with a diabolical glee, so those with a sensitive tongue should make a beeline for the pumpkin with salty duck egg yolk.

The dish tasted almost like an egg-rich cake -- creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside -- with the sweetness of the pumpkin pronounced while still playing subtly with the mild salty flavor of the egg.

Another flawless dish was the stir-fried pea sprouts, simply prepared, but given a light hand the sprouts retain their curl and

crispness.

The only thing to disappoint was the fish braised in chili bean sauce. Though the fish was mild and flavorful, its texture was grainy instead of flaky. But that could be looked over, as the broth was an unusual take on the classic dish, with a sweet earthiness to it as if carrots or other sweet aromatics had been cooked into the broth.

Service at MaMa Ji's can be interminably slow at times, but is cheerful and friendly, with the host -- Ji's husband -- coming up to the table on multiple occasions to check in.

The noise level is also a bit high; the sound bounced off the bare walls and high ceilings.

But I didn't find either of these issues to be deal-breakers for a casual, unhurried dinner, especially one with such a top-notch drink list.

There's Foret Farmhouse Ale on draft? And an Asian food-friendly Muscat? Yes, please. All the better to soothe my chili-bitten tongue.

Location: 4416 18th St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 626-4416

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays

Price range: $4 to $16

Recommended dishes: Chongqing chicken ($10.95), fried pumpkin with salted duck egg yolk ($11.95), handmade vegetarian rice roll ($7.75)

Credit cards: Accepted

Reservations: Not accepted

About The Author

Cynthia Salaysay

Cynthia Salaysay

Bio:
Dining writer for The S.F. Examiner.
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