No. 3: Sichuan Pickles at Mission Chinese Food

SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.

The longer Danny Bowien and Anthony Myint's restaurant sticks around, the farther afield it spins, growing wilder and more elaborate with each new menu. The original menu of tweaked Chinese classics like cumin lamb belly and Mongolian beef cheeks has been augmented with dumplings stuffed with oil-poached fish, a chilled custard with cured trout roe and and sea urchin, and rice porridge with oxtail and Dungeness crab. Yet every time SFoodie sends someone to the restaurant, the first thing we hear back is, “Holy shit! Didja try the pickles?”

Oh, yes. The $3 Sichuan pickle bowl seems to change a little each time we go back, but it's always the way we jump-start the meal. There are the long beans, fermented in shoyu, pulsing with salt and umami, and the dense, almost sweet crunch of the cucumber coins, which are salted and left in the refrigerator until their sourness blooms. From the bottom of the bowl, wallowing in chile oil, toasted chiles, and Sichuan peppercorn oil, are the swaths of Napa cabbage. They've been left to ferment for a few days, the pickling revved up with salt and a little mother brine from the last batch. Taste them on day three, and the cabbage has a mellow, fruity tang; by day five it becomes prickly and effervescent.

Because fiery, buzzy, and acidic aren't quite enough, the cooks shower the pickles in cilantro, green onions, toasted peanuts, and sesame seeds. Starting the meal off with MCF's Sichuan pickles is like watching the opening credits cut to a 20-vehicle car chase, complete with FBI helicopters, yakuza toughs, a shirtless Ryan Reynolds, and a station wagon filled with puppies. You squinch down in the seat, shove your phone in your pocket, and forget about going out for popcorn.

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