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:
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.
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.
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.