The little building at the corner of Alemany Boulevard and Ocean Avenue has housed a number of restaurants over the years, none of them a destination for anyone outside the immediate neighborhood. But at the beginning of this year, fresh paint was applied outside (brick red) and in (creamy yellow), and new signs were hung, proclaiming the new occupants to be Beijing Restaurant. Slowly but surely, word got out that interesting Chinese food was being served here. That buzz was pushed along by the many photographs of Yao Ming, the outsize Houston Rockets star, which line the restaurant's walls. Yao reportedly liked the food so much that he has made a point of showing up here when he's in town.
The 7-foot-6 basketball player is originally from Shanghai, but when I asked a server what Yao's favorite dishes were, he looked at me as if I were crazy and gestured at the section titled "Beijing Special" on the extensive six-page menu. The owners and staff all come from Beijing, and cook many of their favorite northern Chinese dishes from home as well as the familiar Cantonese- and Szechuan-influenced food they know American restaurantgoers expect.
The Beijing Special section is where you'll find unusual dishes that may require explanation — such as egg surfaced three flavors, which turned out to be tofu coated with egg, mixed with shrimp and bits of chicken and pork; or the differences among house special steam meatball, jiao liu meatball Beijing style, or sweet and sour meatball. The specials also include hot and sour potatoes and stir-fried potatoes with chile (how often do you see potatoes on a Chinese menu?); another potato dish, shredded potatoes with hot oil, is hiding in the appetizers among the more pedestrian egg rolls and chicken wings. An entire section of the menu is devoted to "stirred flour balls," another dish we'd never heard of.
At prime time on a Sunday night, all the nine tables were full, so we stood near the door and admired the rows of tiny red lanterns strung across the ceiling. There were lots of families, so we flirted with the babies and asked the adults about their favorite dishes.
I can't say I was thrilled with either of the hot tips we got. The fried crab cheese puffs (six for $4.25) were nothing like what I'd imagined; they were the old '50s-era cream cheese mixed with crab in eggroll wrappers, rather flavorless. The three other dishes we tried from the array of appetizers were better. Though we expected the shredded potatoes with hot oil ($4.95) to be something like hash browns, what we got were beautifully julienned raw strands doused with chile oil, all crunch and heat, little flavor contributed by the potato itself.
The Beijing-style sausage ($6.50) was also a surprise: thick, cold slices of a mildly garlicky, chunky-textured pork sausage that wouldn't be out of place on a French or Italian preserved-meat platter. It went well with our favorite starter, the simple, refreshing cucumber salad Beijing style ($4.95) served in a slightly spicy soy vinaigrette topped with shredded cilantro.
We chose two dishes from the list of Beijing dim sum: fennel dumplings (10 for $7.25) were not vegetarian, as we thought, but concealed a pork-and-greens stuffing under their steamed dough. They were lovely, but we found the vegetable flavor elusive. The jing dong meat pancake ($6.95) contained a thicker-than-usual layer of a similar pork stuffing within its tasty fried dough.
The stir-fried flour balls — we had them with shrimp ($7.25) — seemed like a homestyle dish, little squares of dough that were something like very dense, firm gnocchi, mixed with a number of well-cooked big pink shrimp, chopped fresh zucchini, disappointing frozen peas and carrots, and little else. Experimenting with the chile sauce, soy, and vinegar on the table didn't noticeably improve them.
The cumin lamb ($7.95) was mostly just that — lamb and lots of cumin, stir-fried almost dry, with chunks of red and green peppers and onion thrown in near the end for color and a bit of crunch. It was a stunning, challenging version of the dish. None of the dishes carry descriptions on the menu: The fish filet with special sauce ($7.95) turned out to be battered and fried chunks of rock cod in a bit of light, pearly sauce we found not to be all that special, garnished with a few decorative slices of carrot and cucumber.
We'd had a meal I'd characterize as more interesting than totally successful — the dim sum items were the best things we tried. But on an early weeknight return visit, when most of the tables were empty, we lucked out on almost everything we tried.
The house-made Beijing noodles with special sauce ($7.25) — you stir in bean sprouts, chopped celery, and slivered cucumber — as well as the dark brown sauce, which contains not black beans but shredded fatty pork — had a chewy texture that was almost too firm for us.
When we were asking about the different potato dishes, we stumbled upon an off-the-menu specialty, the Tower ($6.95) — a heap of just-fried potato strings through which waitstaff pour a sweet spicy sauce at the table. They were addictive, and enough for a crowd. Our server told us that if everybody ordered them at once, the kitchen couldn't handle it.The restaurant was out of the sautéed pork liver Beijing style, but we loved the little jiao liu meat balls ($8.50 for more than two dozen, with what seemed like a pound of meat). The beautiful house special tiny purple eggplants ($7.50), almost candied, were studded with fat shrimp.
The nicely fried house special chicken wings (eight for $8.50) were pleasant, though a trifle bland, despite being showered with red chiles, shredded onions, and chives. We also tried a simple stir fry of chicken with broccoli ($6.50), which outshone generic Chinese takeout not only in the quality of its ingredients, but also because the ratio of chicken to broccoli was about three to one. Inside Beijing, Cantonese and Northern Chinese dishes have established successful coexistence.