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Warrior Pose: Terra Cotta Warrior (San Francisco, CA)

The exterior of the Shaanxi-oriented eatery Terra Cotta Warrior
This may be my first San Francisco experience influenced by a Columbus, Ohio finding. Various media reports over 2015 in this area had mentioned that a Chinese restaurant I had passed by numerous times during my travels, Ying Teahouse & Yum-Yum, had implemented a more traditional menu, including some Xi'an/Shaanxi specialties such as roujiamos (essentially, meat burgers) and Qi-Shan Noodles, which are made from wheat flour. For a market like Columbus, this definitely rates as an outlier in the area's Chinese cuisine offerings, and we had (and still have) Ying on the short list of places to try.

However, we found that on our recent travels to California, a little research showed we had a chance to explore that world in the form of the Outer Sunset neighborhood's Terra Cotta Restaurant, and we were more than happy to dive right in on a free Christmas Day for us. As it turned out, our experience here made us even more eager to explore this cuisine in the future.

Terra Cotta Warrior restaurant opened quietly on its Judah Street location back in March of 2014. As noted in this sfgate.com article, owner David Deng, discouraged by Americanized-Chinese that the restaurants he had opened was serving, sought out and found a chef who could cook recipes from his native Shaanxi province for his new restaurant venture.

Terra Cotta summarizes the origins of Shaanxi cuisine on their menus
and sports a welcoming and nicely designed (if slightly cramped) interior

As hinted by the exterior, Terra Cotta Warrior is not a hole-in-the-wall by any stretch, sporting a nicely appointed (if slightly dark) and slightly larger interior. With that said, this space will still feel cramped when the restaurant is either near or at capacity. A mural of the famed Terra Cotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (the famous figures of which were uncovered in the Shaanxi Province in 1974) predominates on one wall, while various art prints and wooden tree branches line the walls in other spots. 

Terra Cotta has specials listed in the front, but the diner can do fine going straight to their main menu for their concise selection of Shaanxi specialties. Having paced ourselves well with a very light breakfast and a long wait until lunch (helped out by a visit to the movie theater to watch the new Star Wars flick), we were quite hungry and eager to dive into more dishes than we would normally try.

The eatery's menu is divided Cold and Hot Dishes as well as a "Restaurant Special" section. As it turned out, two items turned out to be of the cold variety (one of them, the ubiquitous Shaanxi mian-pi, was listed on the "Special" section and two of them hot.

Pictured Left to Right: Shaanxi Mian Pi and Beef Lungs in Chili Sauce
The previously mentioned Shaanxi Mian Pi came out first. In general, both my spouse and I are noodle-dish fans, and I in particular like those that sport flatter noodles. The length of these noodles in this and our other dishes proved to be a challenge, but one we both undertook with great pleasure as we bit into these nicely toothy constructs. The noodles sported a unique sour tang (vinegar?) with a somewhat muted heat from the chili oil. A light bite of garlic added a nice touch, as well as the bean sprouts, which provided some textural variety.  What looked like cubed bread absorbed the whole flavor shebang nicely (I learned in the days after our meal that these are actually kaofu, or wheat bran gluten, as detailed on the excellent blogposts of San Francisco-based blogger Gary Soup.)

The Beef Lungs in Chili Sauce was a dish from the "Cold" portion of the menu which surprised us. Expecting something spongy, we instead got a lean, slightly chewy but not tough (my spouse said it reminded her of the texture of dried chipped beef) thin strips that frankly tasted a lot more like beef than anything organ-related. Unlike the Mian Pi, these strips were only lightly coated in the chili sauce but sported more heat.

The waitstaff-recommended Stir-Fried Lamb with Cumin
The Shaanxi Stir-Fried Wide Noodles finally brought on that full ma la type sensation to both of our mouths. This mix of wide noodles (though thinner than the Mian Pi), onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and jalapenos was pleaser for both of us; if I was a regular and didn't want to think too hard, this would be on my short list of go-to dishes.

Finally, the Stir-Fried Lamb with Cumin (recommended to us by our server) does not skimp on the cumin. This dish, sporting fatty lamb bits with onions and jalapenos, ended up on our take-home pack with a little bit of the Stir-Fried Wide Noodles (the portions here are fairly large and at an inexpensive price by San Francisco standards) and actually made a great impromptu add-in protein for some breakfast burritos a couple days after our meal.

Tables of various sizes are packed throughout the space; as a twosome, we were able to find a table within minutes of our arrival (other larger groups had to wait for what seemed to be 15-20 minutes or so.) Some mentions of slow service had been noted in various social media review sites, but our only delays were experienced after we had finished our meal in terms of grabbing the check. Our food orders came out quite quickly on this busy Christmas afternoon.

Terra Cotta Warrior
2555 Judah St (Outer Sunset)
(b/t 30th Ave & 31st Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94122
(415) 681-3288
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Terra Cotta Warrior Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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