Mild to wild

Pub date October 3, 2006

“Mandarin” is a word that suggests a certain grandeur or even haughtiness. Mandarin English is the language of such pompmeisters as William F. Buckley Jr., George F. Will, and all those other East Coast bow-tied toffs with Roman numerals after their names. As for mandarin food: if you are enjoying this style of Chinese cooking, you must sit up straight, keep your napkin in your lap, and not eat with your fingers. Can you see Buckley or Will eating pot stickers with their fingers?
Perhaps that is a needlessly nightmarish image. Mandarin need not mean “chokingly formal.” Even the Mandarin in Ghirardelli Square, despite much plushness and high style, retains an agreeably casual air — and the Mandarin is not the exclusive home of mandarin cooking in the city. Although mandarin cuisine is sometimes known as “the food of the emperors” and is strongly associated with Beijing — China’s imperial city — it can be found in creditable form here in such neighborhood restaurants as Ah Lin, which opened last year on Cathedral Hill in a space left behind when the peripatetic the Window returned to its original home on Valencia.
If you’re looking for cathedrals, Cathedral Hill isn’t a bad place to start your search: at one end of Ah Lin’s Bush Street block stands Trinity Episcopal, an imposing gothic edifice that looks as if it were transplanted from some village in the north of England. If that doesn’t suit, there are plenty of alternative choices just a brief journey down Gough. And at the other end of Ah Lin’s little urban world (to complete our sacred-and-profane cycle) is Wheel Works, a temple of the automotive, whose large, white, mostly windowless garage takes up most of the view through the restaurant’s windows.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to look outside, because the interior of the restaurant is appealing in its modest way: walls done up in a paint scheme of rich blue, with peach accents and some framed art pieces, along with a good-sized light box whose ground-level plantings give it the look of a big (and slightly tippy) terrarium. Linoleum? Didn’t notice any, but then, I wasn’t looking, and one of the reasons I wasn’t looking — apart from the childish hope that if I didn’t notice it, it couldn’t be there — was because I was too engrossed in the food.
As a devotee of spicy food, my Chinese preferences over the years have tended toward Szechuan and Hunan cooking, each of which makes liberal use of chiles — and chilis — to kindle that characteristic blaze on the lips. Mandarin dishes, on the other hand, tend to be milder, but mild does not mean bland, and as the kitchen at Ah Lin proves over and over, even even-tempered dishes can have their own sort of savory intensity.
The restaurant’s chow fun ($6.95), for instance, sounded very Clark Kent–ish to us — wide noodles with a restful choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, or vegetable — but while the array of these last was routine (snow peas, broccoli florets, sliced mushrooms), the noodles themselves tasted as if they had been cooked in some kind of broth. (Chicken, perhaps? Vegetarian sticklers will want to inquire.) This is a very easy and effective way to enliven starches, but just to make sure, the kitchen also added shreds of basil for some freshening perfume.
Another subtly addictive, peppery broth was the basis of the ocean party soup ($5.50 for a small bowl that was more than enough for two people), a mélange of shrimp, bay scallops, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and snow peas. Having sampled this soup and the chow fun, we did feel we probably could have passed a pop quiz on what the restaurant’s vegetable bin held.
The menu is full of classic preparations. I fell into a Proustian reverie — memories of long ago and far away on Halsted Street — while engulfing the excellent mu shu pork ($7.50), notable here for its tender pancakes. Even more impressive was a roasted half duck ($8.25). The bird carried a faint and unsurprising whiff of five-spice powder, but its real power lay in the combination of wonderfully crisp, cognac-colored skin and confitlike meat, juicy and tender. At the price, it’s one of the best bargains going.
There is some spice to be had, mainly at lunch. Orange-peel beef ($5.75) is one of those cardiac-arrest dishes you know you shouldn’t have but can’t resist, and there’s a good reason you can’t resist: the knobbly shreds of meat are perfectly crisp and the dark-brown sauce intense with citrus and basil; this is just the kind of thing we might find Homer Simpson gorging on from a big paper bucket, if only it were a little dryer. Hunan fish ($5.75), meanwhile, featured a tangy-sweet sauce with a discreet hint of heat, but what was more striking was the fish itself — fish cakes, really, with a certain sponginess of texture the price of uniformity in size (for more reliable cooking) and the chance to mix seasonings with the flesh. The cakes aren’t unmanageably rubbery, but they can’t match the more usual cod or flounder filets for velvetiness. Lunches come with a cup of soup, a quite lively sweet-and-sour maybe, and rice — brown rice, if you prefer.
Although the restaurant is quite small, service can be stressed. The noontime crowd is sizable, and in the evening take-out orders pile up on the cashier’s podium at the rear of the dining room. So: serenity now, and your order will be along soon enough. SFBG
Continuous service: Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat., noon–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 4:30–9:30 p.m.
1634 Bush, SF
(415) 922-5279
Beer and wine
Moderately noisy
Wheelchair accessible