Around the northern crown of the globe, there is a reassuring sameness to January food — the international solace of potatoes, the ubiquity of pickled cabbage. Dishes like choucroute, shchi, bigos, and kimchi jjigae still carry the echoes of a winter ritual: plunging a cold-stiffened hand into an urn of preserved greens, feeling around in the brine for reassurance there will be enough to last until spring.
Even though San Francisco hasn't seen snowfall since 1976, most of the parties at Beijing Restaurant's new Outer Sunset branch are clustered around another January classic, a stoneware bowl of "warm pot with pickled cabbage." Like much of Beijing's food, the warm pot — I ordered mine with fish — was as homey as a slice of warm bread.
Timid trails of steam seeped out of each wide-mouthed stoneware bowl, kept simmering with the pastel flames emitted by a blob of pink jelled fuel in the pot's stand. If it weren't for the cilantro leaves on the top, the dish could be nicknamed "glass stew." Fillets of white fish, poached just long enough to turn translucent, were smothered in suan cai, or pale chunks of pickled Napa cabbage. Threaded through the cabbage were transparent noodles elastic enough to whip back and forth as we hoovered them up. The tang of the clear broth was precise and discreet. I finished one bowl, and spooned up another.
The 2-year-old Excelsior restaurant's new branch (my predecessor reviewed the original in October 2009) serves most of its parent's Beijing specialties as well as a new one: Peking duck. What with Little Beijing, Old Mandarin, and San Dong House in San Francisco, plus a dozen-plus restaurants in surrounding cities, northern Chinese cuisine is settling into the Bay Area. The rustic flavors at these places haven't yet assimilated, but a local canon of menu items such as warm pots, stir-fried potatoes, and "flour balls" is emerging.
If you've had the gummy "stirred flour balls" at Old Mandarin, for instance, you'll appreciate how much better Beijing's are ($7.95). Simply stir-fried with diced vegetables and meat, the dumplings are the size of peas and have a delicately chewy texture somewhere between gnocchi and spaetzle. Beijing's twisty, irregular hand-pulled noodles (all $7.95) don't have the even gauge and smooth surfaces of San Dong House's, but texturally they have a great presence, especially when dressed with the earthy, salty "special sauce." By contrast, Beijing's cumin lamb ($9.95) — a classic northern Muslim dish, scented like a Kazakh kebab shop — tastes anemic compared to the fervid seasoning of Old Mandarin's.
The new restaurant, small enough to note exactly what every other diner is eating, is sparsely decorated with a wall of Mao-era memorabilia, including a short-collared jacket, an army cap decorated with a single red star, and a radio. When I first visited a month ago, two Cultural Revolution–era propaganda posters were tacked up, too, but that must have taken the nostalgia too far — they were gone a few days later.
The boiled dumplings have all made it onto the new menu, and so have the restaurant's signature pies: meticulously constructed, plate-sized stuffed pancakes with dough layers rolled out to the thickness of a cabbage leaf. The pies can have three or four inner tiers, with finely ground beef and chives spread between each (MenDing pancake, $7.95), or a more straightforward pan-browned packet stuffed with green and gold confetti (house special pie, $7.25): oil-glossed chives whose bite was tempered by flecks of scrambled egg and the sub-rosa contribution of dried shrimp.
The biggest addition to the menu is the Peking duck. Beijing owner Quan Jin says he had an oven imported from China specifically to roast the duck, and his mother developed the recipe (Jin refuses to talk specifics, though, about how the duck is prepared). For $38.95, the price of a normal dinner for three, you can order a three-course Peking duck dinner — though it still needs work. The first, critical, course — slices of the skin and outer meat, served with papery crepes, yellow chives, and hoisin sauce — turned out respectable: the lacquered duck had been roasted until it turned the color of a violin and the slices of skin retained the occasional crackle. If the whiff of wood smoke was missing and the underlying layer of fat was thicker than I hoped for, it still melted into wash of flavor the moment I bit in.
The subsequent roast duck courses were, frankly, atrocious. First came the meaty carcass, hacked up, battered, and saturated with fryer oil. Another handful of bones were simmered with water and pickled cabbage for a few more minutes, but not enough to give the resulting soup any flavor.
So the homestyle food remains the reason to stop in. Tack on a vegetable dish, and it's just as sturdy as the noodles, pancakes, dumplings, and warm pots — three-flavor vegetables ($7.50), aka eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes cooked in a bean-paste sauce, or hot and sour potatoes ($7.95) shredded finely and stir-fried with garlic and rice-wine vinegar, just until they soften to jicama's watery crunch. Pair the potatoes with an order of jiao liu meatballs ($8.95) — ping-pong-size pork balls that are steamed, fried, and then simmered in a simple black-bean sauce — and the cultural distance between Stockholm and Beijing evaporates. The transnational wintriness of the pairing seems perfect for San Francisco — snowy food for a city that can't do January right.