The words “dim sum” conjure images of roving carts, chicken feet, and indecipherable character-filled menus. There are crowded tables, long waits, and florescent lights. You may have a hangover.
So it is a little peculiar to walk into Mama Ji’s on a sunny Sunday afternoon and be greeted with English menus, tiny tidy tables, and a full selection of Belgian beers. The room is strangely calm, even with a packed house—chalk it up to the lack of background music and patrons’ enthusiastic noshing. Even on the cusp of the Folsom Street Fare nearby, the wait for a table was only a few minutes; the host, co-owner Marv Woatla, is cheery and helpful, if a bit spacey.
Mama Ji’s has a history much like that other Sichuan darling over on Mission Street. Begun as a pop-up in the back of Queen Malika café last October, Lili “Mama” Ji and Woatla, her husband, formally took over the space this past May. This move has allowed Ji to expand the menu to include not only her family’s specialties, but also dim sum and Sichuan classics. They picked up a prize dim sum cook in Li Guozhong, formally of Daly City’s Koi Palace.
If recent press is any indication, Mama Ji’s is a welcome addition to the otherwise dull selection of Castro restaurants. But is the restaurant poised to be good enough to stand with the city’s greats, or is it destined to remain a quirky neighborhood staple?
Given the experience during our recent visit, it ultimately seems geared towards the later.
The dim sum menu holds few surprises—steamed dumplings of all stripes, fried pot stickers, turnip cakes, chive pancakes are all common orders—but there are a couple Mama Ji originals, like vegetarian pork buns and a steamed lotus-leaf wrapped packet of glutinous rice and shrimp sausage.
On our dim sum visit, we filled our tiny table with steam baskets and noodle platters. The classic steamed dishes falter a little: The juicy and fragrant pork and shrimp filling in Ji’s shu mai dumplings is unfortunately overshadowed by thick, chewy wrappers. A similar fate befalls the well-seasoned but soup-deficient xiao long bao. Neon barbeque pork is on the saccharine side of sweet, but would make for a decent bao if not for the overwhelming size of the large Wonderbread-like bun.
Far better is the aforementioned steamed sweet rice and shrimp sausage. It’s a rustic, comforting, and pleasantly tender dish, exhibiting harmonious balance between salty shrimp, sweet rice, and fatty pork. The grassy lotus leaf grounds the dish, its fragrant perfume tying together the multitudinous flavors. Similarly, fried turnip cakes studded with unnamed pork pieces are lightened by the bright salinity of dried shrimp added to the dough. Much like a piece of good salty ham, they’re easy to fill up on.
But try to leave room for the springy Sichuanese noodles with spicy soybean paste. They’re as much sauce as noodles—that’s a great thing. Every bite comes loaded with rich ground pork, tangy fermented bean paste, and super-hot fresh green peppers. The green peppers especially are a smart move, as they freshen and intensify an otherwise fat-leaden dish—is reason enough to explore the dinner menu.
Service is friendly and chatty, but a little disorganized. All of our dishes showed up at once, making it hard to sample each item while hot. While this wasn’t a serious problem for the noodles, we struggled to get through the steamed items at their peak. A staggered coursing of dumplings to fried items would have been welcome.
It’s not surprising that Mama Ji’s has been compared to both local dim sum joints and popular, hipper Sichuan restaurants nearby. But, frankly, Mama Ji’s is too unique for such comparisons to stick. With authentically fiery Sichuan fare, family-friendly dim sum, and an upscale drink selection, Mama Ji’s is truly more a mash-up of a restaurant. (Dare we call it fusion?) This status is by no means a critique. Instead, it befits a restaurant born out of a pop-up—flexible, creative, and fun—and we hope it stays this way.