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Bowien is in thrall to Sichuan peppercorns right now. Sometimes, as with the tingly lamb soup ($9), the buzz is so big and untempered that it tastes like licking a spark plug. But more often, he takes a more classic Sichuan tack and blends the spice with chiles. The blend of nutty, toasted dried peppers and peppercorns is at the core of his ma po tofu, a good, straightforward rendition that blows away diners who are only familiar with the one-note spiciness of the Cantonese-American version. Bowien uses the same blend to dust a bowl of Sichuan pickles ($3), where it electrifies the salt-cured cucumber and fermented napa cabbage. He does the same with the fresh tofu ($6.50). He starts with a cool block of uncooked bean curd, chopped cucumber, and cherry tomatoes, then showers them in toasted garlic, fermented black beans, grated ginger, and the spice blend. The contrast between cool and hot is both jarring and compelling, as if you decided to watch a Russian ballet with the sound off and Iron Maiden cranked up.
Bowien is so obsessed with Sichuan cuisine right now that I wanted to balance out the two restaurants' menus, playing Mission Chinese Food's bombastic flavors off the lighter Canto-American fare from Lung Shan. However, the two Lung Shan dishes I ordered — flavorless snow peas with mealy water chestnuts ($6.95) and General's chicken ($7.95) that was as sticky and overfried as it gets — just weren't made with the same care.
Like the tingly lamb, the dishes that flop tend to flop hard. In the tiger salad ($7), Bowien wraps a plethora of herbs — shiso, cilantro, pea shoots, seaweed — in a rice-noodle sheet, then slices the cylinder into 3-inch-wide circles. The roll disintegrates the moment you pick it up, and the black-vinegar dressing he sprinkles on top is harsh-tasting and unevenly applied. His char siu braised pork belly ($9) comes out gelatinous and fatty, which the oily, nondescript sauce it's coated in does nothing to counteract.
2234 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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But if any dish emblemizes what he's trying to do, it's the braised Mongolian beef cheek (or sometimes brisket, both $9). Rather than master stir-frying beef to make sure the meat comes out of the wok in elegant, satiny curls, Bowien braises the hell out of a beef cheek, then slices it and stir-fries it with caramelized onions and jalapeños, using the braising liquid as the base of his sauce. Taste the dish once, and it's every order of Mongolian beef you've ever plucked out of a takeout box. Taste it again, and you marvel at the depth of the sauce, its faint horseradish funk.
The restaurant itself hasn't changed since the Mission Street Food days. Lung Shan is still dim, still ringed with tourism posters. Garlands of pink and yellow Christmas lights still glow with the downmarket romance of a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle. If I mention that Bowien seems devoted to the Notorious B.I.G. Pandora channel, that the sweet-natured waiters wear leggings and bowl haircuts, and that half of the customers are dressed for a log-rolling competition in 1960s Paris, would that put you off? Be a bigger person than that, oh hipster hater.
Before I ate at Mission Chinese Food, I was ready to dismiss it as a cheap stunt. A chef with no Chinese-restaurant experience reworking Chinese dishes? Really? But Bowien's food can be so improbably successful that it subverts the romantic narratives we like to tell about food — how good cooks spell their food with the story of their personal ancestry, how eating at Ethiopian or Guatemalan restaurants renders diners more plugged into San Francisco's demographic kaleidoscope. Best of all, he blithely stomps all over the idea of authenticity. He isn't trying to make "authentic" Chinese food—he just wants to blast your tongue off. Mine has yet to recover, I'm happy to report.