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The short answer to the question "What in the blazes is Mission Chinese Food?" is that it's a Chinese restaurant within a Chinese restaurant. I tried this Twitter-appropriate pitch on a few prospective dining guests last week, but it only led to more questions. So before I dive into the long, long story of what it is and why you should go there, here's a sample of what the 2-month-old Mission restaurant serves:
2234 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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The sizzling cumin lamb ($12.50), chef Danny Bowien's riff on a famous dish from the northwest of China, begins with lamb belly braised until its layers of fat melt away. Mere minutes before it's about to fall apart, the meat is pulled out of the pot, then coated in cumin, coriander, and chiles and stir-fried with a mess of onions. Presented on an oven-hot iron plate, the lamb sends up a plume of smoke that smells like a row of Afghan kabob shops and has a magnetic effect on the couple at the next table, who lean over to investigate. The dish is thickly spiced and salted to peak effect. Once you top the dish with a spoonful of the long beans served on the side, which are pickled in soy sauce and coated in chile oil and spices, the explosive flavor reverberates through your sinuses and down the vertebrae of your neck.
A medium-length description of Mission Chinese Food would have to start with Anthony Myint. For a year and a half, he ran Mission Street Food, a twice-a-week popup restaurant, out of a cheap Chinese-American restaurant on Mission Street named Lung Shan.
This summer, Myint closed down Mission Street Food in order to open Commonwealth, a high-end restaurant located next door. He teamed up with Bowien, who'd been cooking at Mission Street Food and running the Mission Burger stand in Duc Loi Market, to convince Lung Shan's owners, Sue and Liang Zhou, to stay in business with them. Bowien would run the new, seven-day-a-week restaurant-within-a-restaurant.
These days, when you enter Lung Shan, you're presented with two menus: Lung Shan's 150-item list of Chinese-American standards, as well as Bowien's 15-item Mission Chinese Food menu, priced in the same $6-$12 range. The twin businesses have separated the kitchen into two cooking areas, with two sets of cooks but shared delivery guys. (In fact, delivery has expanded. Bowien convinced the Zhous to deliver food as far away as the Richmond.)
The full story of Mission Chinese Food gets even twistier. Bowien is a hard-to-miss presence in Lung Shan, with his shoulder-length, bleach-streaked hair; giant nursing-home glasses; and fondness for brightly colored Mickey Mouse shirts. Oh, and he isn't Chinese. Born in Korea but adopted and raised in Oklahoma, he swears he never tasted good Chinese food until he moved to San Francisco at the age of 19. He has worked in kitchens as diverse as Bar Crudo and Blowfish Sushi; while he was cooking at Farina in 2008, the restaurant sent Bowien to the Pesto World Championships in Genoa, Italy. He won first place.
When you ask the chef how he got the idea to start making ma po tofu ($8.50) and salt-cod fried rice ($10), he says, "I wanted just to make food that I enjoy eating on my day off." Press him further, and he says that he re-engineers the dishes he loves most at regional Chinese restaurants like Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant and Spices II, attempting to "make them better." Making them better — the hubris of the claim galls a little — involves using less-common cuts of meats from higher-end producers like Creekstone and Snake River, and rejiggering the seasoning to pack in flavor and cut out MSG.
Bowien's cooks? Both of them are Chinese, but neither has cooked professionally before. They are just two guys the Zhous hired to help out. Language problems can turn the simplest instruction into a 15-minute pantomime. "It's ridiculous," Bowien says. He says that a lot.
The result of his hyperkinetic experimentation is a rich, spicy, palate-slamming food. Sometimes Bowien's restlessness ruins a dish. Sometimes you wish he'd try a little delicacy. And some of his food is so good he seems to be inventing a new culinary genre. It's not East-West fusion: It's more like detonation.
Now that I know the exact dishes he's tweaking, I have to say: I do like some of his versions better. The cumin lamb, for one, which he copied off Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant at Vicente and 42nd Avenue. Another is Bowien's take on Spices II's chicken wings with explosive chili peppers ($8). It looked like an exact copy, the chicken buried in a heap of dried-chile pods. I unearthed a deep-fried wing, speckled in spice, and bit in. The salt hit my tongue just as the wild, citrus aroma of the Sichuan peppercorns hit my nose, intertwined with the unexpected perfume of cinnamon and star anise. As I relished the tenderness of the meat underneath the papery-crisp skin, the peppercorns began buzzing my lips, and I began to feel like I'd just sucked on a vibrator. At that exact moment, the chile fire flared into a three-alarm.