The green walls and wooden decor at Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant snuggle up to guests like a tight embrace, shielding them from the neighborhood’s chilly fog. One night at the low-lit Northern Chinese restaurant, a bodyguard came into the business telling owner Shuai Yang he had “someone famous” coming in for dinner. In short order, Yusuf, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, walked in.
There’s probably a clear reason why Yusuf chose the restaurant for dinner: a practicing Muslim can order anything on the menu, as every dish is halal, meaning prepared according to Islamic law. While KQED’s Check, Please! put the restaurant on the map back in 2006, highlighting the affordable cuisine and the charming dining room, to this day many guests may not understand Old Mandarin is somewhat of a rarity in the city. “It took a few years for the general population to learn about us,” Yang says. “For the first few years, it was just Muslim people.”
When the Yang family opened the restaurant in 2001, there wasn’t much on the block. “There was only Thahn Long,” Yang says, citing the iconic Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks away. Growing up, his mom worked at a restaurant on 19th and Irving streets — not far from legendary chicken dealer San Tung, the only restaurant Yang remembers specializing in Northern Chinese food as a kid. Though that shop does its food American-style, Yang says. Illustrations of mosques and Arabic lettering adorn his family’s restaurant, differentiating the Vicente Street business from any other Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. The Michelin Guide must have agreed, as it recommended his family’s business from 2011 through to 2017.
Now, he’s glad to see the proliferation of Northern Chinese restaurants owned and operated by fellow immigrants on the city’s west side, as he knows the trials members of his community can face when making new lives in America. In China, Yang says, it’s not just Muslims who are persecuted. “Any group blocking everyday life in China can be detained,” he says. Less than 2 percent of the Chinese population practices Islam, Sunni being the predominant sect. The greatest concentration of Muslims is in Xinjiang province, the same area where Yang’s family immigrated from. In 2009, riots broke out in Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi, leading to further crackdown on Muslims in the region.
Yang estimates about 30 percent of their diners are Muslim. The other 70 percent just enjoy the food and aren’t necessarily aware of the restaurant’s significance to the Muslim community. Customers return for the rich, well-spiced entrees and casual atmosphere — Yang says the majority of the menu has never changed over the years. That’s because he and his family are proud of what they cook, and where they’re from. “I grew up Muslim,” Yang says. “That’s who we are.”
While he and his family haven’t experienced an outstanding level of discrimination — in part thanks to San Francisco’s diversity, Yang says — the restaurateur remembers a noticeable uptick right after 9/11. “We get hate calls because of our name,” Yang says. “I wish there were more restaurants that show love to the religion.” All of the food at his business adheres to halal guidelines described in the Qur’an. Similar to kosher in the Jewish religion, there are various ways those rules show up on the plate, but generally speaking, it means no pork, no alcohol, and specific practices must be observed in slaughtering animals.
The cumin lamb is Yang’s favorite item on the menu, a surprisingly spicy dish with a touch of tang. Water chestnuts and peanut bedeck the meat, offering a crunchy texture to offset the tender lamb. For many, trying it may be the first time they’ve had a cumin-forward dish at a Chinese restaurant; Yang says he always tries to encourage first-time guests to order it, especially since it’s the dish Muslims in China are best known for. In the late 1980s, he points out, the Chinese government allowed a number of small businesses to open throughout the country. In Xinjiang, where Old Mandarin sources its cumin, that meant lots of cumin lamb skewer selling-businesses popped up.
Even the appetizers at Old Mandarin Islamic are decadent. The beef pancakes occupy a delicate simultaneity of oily and crispy, and the lamb dumplings are an ultra-rich starter. Green bean tofu offers a bit more food, each rectangle of the tofu a crispy treat, and the cracked fish comes in a simmering cast iron pot of mouth-numbing peppercorn. The chicken jalapeno stir-fry adds another kick of heat while offering yet another option for protein. In short: the halal-friendly menu here doesn’t feel limited, but abundant. “You came all the way to the Outer Sunset,” Yang says. “You may as well try something new.”
Yang wants his guests to visit China and see the culture for themselves, though he’s happy to be a jumping-off point for the curious. The last 30 years — about as long as Old Mandarin has been operating — have seen a lot of positive growth for his home country, he says. “It’s communist,” Yang says. “But they let small business in. I think 80 percent of people’s lives have gotten better.” That said, the global international community still routinely chastises China for ongoing civil rights violations.
The owner brings out dessert at the end of the night, weaving between an armada of to-go boxes and tied plastic bags. The sugar-encrusted mochi provides the mouthfeel of a doughnut that belies the familiar sticky rice treat below. Each one is palm-sized, and still hot, with dates and walnuts in the center. Its as ideal a choice as any to break the Ramadan fast for many of Yang’s customers, as it has been for nearly three decades. “If you control your hunger,” he says. “You can control your urges.”