If you've grown up thinking of Chinese charcuterie as waxed gizzards and Chinese sausage, you should begin your visit to Dong Bei Mama like I did: with a trip up to the counter, where the owners have laid out a spread of cold meats as varied as the salumi platter at Incanto. The familiar dishes I recognized — plates tiled in thin slices of five-spice beef and whorls of translucent striped pig's ear — but then there were also ovals of ground shrimp wrapped in a millimeter-thick omelet and pale brown rectangles of ground chicken formed around a gold-centered salted egg. The most elaborate was a terrine that seemed as if it were modeled on a Mondrian painting: a square of ground chicken pressed against a rectangle of ground pork, wrapped in an omelet, with two circles of Chinese sausage in its center.
The food was hardly as rustic as I expected. Restaurants specializing in Dongbei cuisine — the food of northeastern China, or Manchuria as the region was known before the Communist era — began proliferating in the far-out cities of the East and South Bay seven or eight years ago. The ones I visited seemed to specialize in only three things: pickled cabbage, offal, and potatoes. But as Dongbei restaurants have come closer and closer to the city, the menus have expanded and differentiated themselves from more established northern Chinese and/or Shandong restaurants like Little Beijing and Old Mandarin.
When the owners of a flagging but well-respected Sichuan restaurant named Panda Country Kitchen decided to rebrand to lure more business, they brought on Dongbei-born Chef Xue from Little Sichuan in San Mateo and renamed the place Dong Bei Mama. Not only is it the first specifically Dongbei restaurant I've seen in the city (another, Maomao Kitchen, is under construction in the Inner Sunset), it's serving an exuberant selection of regional specialties. There are 208 items on the menu, including Sichuan classics from the previous menu and ubiquitous, unnecessary Cantonese standards. Three Falstaffian meals were hardly enough for me to survey what the restaurant has to offer. The provinces bordered by Russia, Korea, and Mongolia, it turns out, have a more varied and interesting cuisine than outsiders like me thought.
The 39 cold plates alone are worth a few more visits. The ones I tried included excellent salads of spicy shredded potato ($3.89) and three-flavor enoki mushrooms ($5.89), both tossed with julienned green chiles and cilantro leaves in a rice-vinegar dressing whose clear, bright tang was softened by the nuttiness of a few drops of sesame oil. The shrimp roll ($5.89) and the unnamed Mondrian terrine ($5.89), each served with a bowl of fruity black vinegar for dipping, proved less interesting to eat — a little dry — than they were to look at. But another terrine, the five spices pig head ($4.89), was as exquisite as any tête pressée or coppa di testa in town. Each thick rectangle was formed of dozens of morsels of meat; the glistening gelatin that bound them together melted in the mouth, a whiff of star anise trailing in its wake. The terrine proved as tender as a slice of mortadella, punctuated by an occasional crunch from a sliver of pig's ear.
Dongbei is wheat, not rice country (in fact, the rice, if you order it, isn't well cooked), which means dumplings, buns, and noodles. The steamed shrimp, chives, and pork dumplings ($6.89) were pretty wretched, with skins so thin they tore upon contact. But Dong Bei Mama's pan-fried pork buns ($5.89) turned out to be giant, puffy ovals, more bun than dumpling. We pried open the seam running down the center in order to drizzle in black vinegar, cutting the sweetness of the ginger and cabbage.
Wheat is not the only cold-climate grain, however. Buns are often made with sorghum and millet in Manchuria, and the stews in the "Happy Family" section of Dong Bei Mama's menu — all served in woks kept simmering on the table — come with a plate of glossy-surfaced golden buns the size of tangerines, made with wheat and a fourth grain, corn. There's a slight graininess to the puffy rolls, and the flavor is reminiscent of cornmeal pancakes; we dredged the buns through bowls of a simple stew ($13.89) of red-cooked pork belly, its sweet, five-spice-tinged braising liquid the main flavoring for the broth, with stretchy, clear yam noodles and pieces of fresh napa cabbage.
I could see woks on most of the tables around me. The room, a field of tables and not much else, hasn't changed a lot since Panda Country Kitchen became Dong Bei Mama. The crowd itself was sparse enough on my weekday visits that I wasn't sure the transformation from Sichuan to Dongbei had paid off until my last visit on Mother's Day, when 50 families were feting their own mothers. Word of the transformation had clearly ricocheted around San Francisco's Cantonese and Mandarin food-gossip networks. The crowd slowed the troupe of servers but didn't fluster them, and didn't affect the quality of the food.
Cabbage leaves peeked out of most of those bubbling woks, some of it fresh, most of it pickled — suan cai, it's between sauerkraut and kimchi. The preserved Napa with lamb "stew soup" ($9.89) was a tart, clear-brothed soup, little more than pickled cabbage braised with shavings of quickly cooked lamb, rice noodles, and cilantro: mama food indeed. The soup has become a familiar dish in Dongbei and northern Chinese restaurants around the Bay Area; Dong Bei Mama's version had rounder, more unified flavors than the clean-tasting versions at Beijing Restaurant or Old Mandarin.
Many of the dishes were simple stir-fries, homey and competent. A heap of beef with half-moon slices of yam ($8.89), for instance, was tender and lightly sauced. The seasoning on the Dong Bei fish filet ($8.89) was as discreet as the Auto-Tuning on a Beyoncé song, the wallet-sized chunks of white fish tossed with red and green peppers, frilly tufts of white fungus, and velvety curls of cloud ear. A plate of spinach sautéed with garlic ($6.89) made for a fine side dish, as did chives with dry tofu, the green chives twined around julienned slices of pressed bean curd. Multifaceted slices of pale green loofah gourd, which the menu calls singua ($7.89), crunched juicily, a sort of gushy cucumber.
As for the offal? It's threaded through the menu. It'd be easy to make up a whole-hog dinner on your own, starting with the luxurious headcheese I tried, as well as a salad of shredded pig skin and simmered pig feet from the cold plates. Move through pork belly and spareribs prepared a dozen ways, with a side of pork liver with chives, and finish with the best of the pork dishes I tried: crispy intestines ($8.89) stir-fried with a Christmas-hued mass of bell peppers, fresh and dried chiles, Chinese celery, and pinkie-length bamboo shoots. The intestines, cut on the diagonal and deep-fried until their exteriors turned the color of burnished bronze, were papery-crisp and juicy rather than rubbery, any funk cowed into submission by the cumin, chiles, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns that covered their surface. Measured in pig alone, Dongbei cuisine turns out to be very broad indeed.