"When you see things like Savory Egg Custard with Sea Urchin, Thrice Cooked Bacon, or Tingly Lamb Noodle Soup on the menu, there's not really much you can do to control yourself."
Mission Chinese Food (in Lung Shan Restaurant)
2234 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 (between 18th and 19th; map); 415-863-2800 missionchinesefood.com
Service: An odd mix of typical Chinese restaurant brusqueness and wide-eyed hipster friendliness.
Setting: Old School, down and dirty, Chinese takeout joint.
Must-Haves: Savory Egg Custard, Kung Pao Pastrami, Chicken Wings
Cost: $3 to $16 (most dishes under $10)
Biking over towards 18th and Mission to check out the much-hyped Mission Chinese Food, there was one thought going through my head: "This is gonna be really great, or it's going to suck," as is usually the case when a group of young upstarts (OK, we can call them hipsters) get their hands on a restaurant space and a heretofore un-hipsterfied cuisine.
The third option (which turned out to be the reality) hadn't occurred to me: That it was going to be freaking awesome.
Everyone probably knows the basic background story by now: pioneering restaurateur/chef/author (Anthony Myint) opens a pop-up restaurant out of the the kitchen of a run-down takeout Chinese restaurant (Lung Shan). Restaurateur brings on young but experienced upstart (Danny Bowien) who converts restaurant into a Sichuan joint, sharing the space, waitstaff, and kitchen (but not menu) with existing restaurant.
Problem: Bowien has never cooked Sichuan food. Scratch that. Bowien has never cooked Chinese food.
Solution: Make it all up as you go along.
It's a weird idea. The kind an investor would laugh off the table before you even got to the bit about the kung pao pastrami. That it works brilliantly is a testament to Bowien's skill and innately terrific palate. It's also the kind of idea they've made work on a shoestring budget, largely due to their interesting arrangement with the existing restaurant.
From the street, there's nothing to indicate Mission Chinese Food even exists, save for the paper-sized poster in the window of Lung Shan restaurant. Walk in and you get barely any more clues. Granted, your run-of-the-mill Chinese takeout spot doesn't pump rock and roll or club beats through the speakers, but visually, there's nothing out of the ordinary, down to the chipped formica tables, small dumpling-making booth in the front window, and an elderly waitress in a flower-embroidered Mao suit.
It's when you're handed the menus that things get a little weird.
One version contains over a hundred items that span the catalog of traditional Chinese-American fare. The other has got about two dozen items, with a decidedly heavy Sichuan and North Chinese bent to it.
The two restaurants literally share a space, a kitchen (with two woks), and some staff, but our waiter is careful to point out that they are not the same business. Order off one menu, it goes into one pocket. Order off the other, and it goes to the other.
Now anybody who knows me knows I'm a Sichuan and Northern Chinese cuisine fiend. Sweet and fiery dishes, mouth-numbing salads, warm spices and cilantro, lamb and pickled vegetables of all kinds. I'm not the only one. Apparently Bowien and his chef buddies loved eating the stuff so much that they decided to make it themselves.
I had walked into the restaurant with a single tablemate expecting to try one or two dishes, saving room for the Burmese place down the street and the pizza I was supposed to review later on that night. But when you see things like Savory Egg Custard with Sea Urchin, Thrice Cooked Bacon, or Tingly Lamb Noodle Soup on the menu, there's not really much you can do to control yourself.
We ended up ordering nearly a third of the menu.
A bowl of Sichuan Style Salt-Pickled Cabbage ($3) came first. Sour, tart and hot with a drizzle of chili oil and a numbing sprinkle of Sichuan peppercorn, roasted peanuts and freshly chopped coriander. Insanely good, like would-make-me-give-up-kimchee-forever good, and probably the most traditional dish on the menu. Next up was Savory Egg Custard ($12), possibly my favorite dish of the afternoon. Japanese Chawan mushi-style steamed egg custard in a light broth that tasted to me of tomato water and shiso, with fresh, custardy-firm sea urchin and salted salmon roe. Mouth soothing, cooling, and sublimely textured.
"Mouth Watering" Chicken ($7) sounds like the classic Sichuan cold "Mysterious Flavor Chicken" appetizer, but comes with a fresh salad of cucumbers and black sesame seed with perfectly poached chicken breast and hearts, fragrant with the lightly citrusy scent of Sichuan peppercorn and more of their mildly spicy chili oil.
Over near the restaurant entrance, Bowien, a long-haired Korean dude with glasses, stood stretching out noodles one at a time and dropping them into a tray of simmering water. I chatted with him a bit about his recipe.
"It took us forever to get the dough recipe right," he said. "You get these noodles in China or in Chinatown and they're so stretchy because they're packed with dough conditioners. I wanted to make mine with just flour, salt, and water. I figured out how after three months." He uses a high-gluten flour and allows it to rest at three different stages before stretching.
"I almost consider it cheating to use conditioners. It's like MSG." He's got nothing against the stuff from a health standpoint, but sees it almost as a matter of pride to coax flavors out of his ingredients without the aid of modern flavor enhancers. Occasionally, a batch of dough will begin to naturally leaven itself (we are, after all, in San Francisco), which is fine with him—he turns it into leavened steamed buns the next day.
This time, however, the noodles are destined for the awesome Numbing Lam Face Biang Biang Mien ($10). If you've had the lamb face salad at any of the branches of Xi'an Famous Foods in New York (see our review here), you'll recognize this dish for its tender, almost gelatinous braised lamb head meat, chewy hand-pulled noodles, and numb-hot chili oil-based sauce.
Thus far, nothing had been crazy hot, and I like my food crazy hot. Indeed, it's one of my biggest gripes against Sichuan-style food in New York. I was about to get my wish fulfilled.
Bam*. Kung Pao Pastrami ($11).
Listen up folks, because this is really great stuff. One of the most original, inspired, successful, and downright delicious dishes I've had in a long time. Slices of tender pastrami stir-fried together with paper thin strips of potato, a trio of hot peppers, peanuts, chili oil, a touch of vinegar, and a whole lot of toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns. It's fiery hot, no-holds barred food that's totally Sichuan in spirit and flavor if not in provenance.
*Yeah, I pulled that guy out
This is the new face of Sichuan food. Over the top wacky, but over the top delicious. I'd fly back to San Francisco just to eat more of this one dish.
But it's not the only dish worth eating. Thrice Cooked Bacon ($10) is equally inventive and delicious. Rather than the masses of pork belly you find among the leeks and peppers in the traditional twice cooked pork, here the bacon is used more as a flavoring. The belly is smoked, then blanched and finally stir-fried, adding a smoky, porky edge to the Korean duk rice cakes that make up the bulk of the dish. It's pretty ingenious really, considering how similar duk are in texture to soft, fatty pork belly, but without belly's occasional greasiness.
OK, so I have to admit—it's not all good news. Ma Po Tofu ($10, my favorite dish in the world) comes off as too sour, with tofu chunks that are a bit too firm, and fancy-pants ground Kurobuta pork that's a bit too mushy. Though I freely admit that it could just be my very specific and very high expectations of this particular dish that had me wanting something else.
Dan Dan Noodles ($8) were another weak point, with a very sweet peanut sauce with very little heat. Again, not a bad dish on its own, but not what I'm looking for when a menu describes something as Dan Dan Noodle. But these are minor troughs in a meal full of staggeringly high, high points.
Oh, remember where I said that the egg custard was my favorite dish of the afternoon? I lied. The Chicken Wings Surrounded by Hot Peppers ($7) was the best dish of the afternoon.
Indeed, they might be my favorite plate of chicken wings ever. They arrive at your table buried under a sea of bright red chili peppers. A bit of overkill here—I mean, does 50 chili peppers resting on top of your chicken really make it any hotter than five?—but a cute flourish.
The influence is clearly Chongqing-style dry fried chicken, a specialty of the city of Chongqing in Southwestern China, in which bite-sized pieces of bone-in chicken are fried and tossed with an intense Sichuan peppercorn-based spice mixture. The original is good, but has a flaw: those tiny bones are a pain in the a$$ to avoid. Using juicy wings solves that problem.
Aside from the flavor, the wings are just mind-blowingly crisp and juicy. Bowien says the secret to their phenomenal texture is they're first poached in oil, then frozen at least overnight, and finally fried straight from frozen. I don't know the science behind why this works, but I can tell you I've never had wings like this before, and I've studied a lot of wings in my life.
This may well revolutionize my buffalo wing game...
My friend and I stumbled out of the place, stuffed to near bursting, and you know what? We'd finished less than a quarter of the food. There was easily enough on our table to feed eight hungry dudes, and the total bill came to just under $100.
That's crazy cheap. Seriously. Awesome food, made from high quality ingredients (Bowien insists on sourcing his meat and produce from sustainable/organic sources separate from the Lung Shan pantry). Oh, and did I mention that 75¢ of the revenue from every entree sold gets donated to the San Francisco Food Bank (they've raised over $60,000 as of this writing)? And that they'll deliver anywhere in the city (and I mean anywhere)?
I really can't think of anything not to like about Mission Chinese Food.
Now I know there are the anti-hipsters out there (I'm often one of them). I know there are those who can't wrap their heads around non-authentic ethnic food (I used to be one of them). There are even those who turn their noses up at hot foods (I will never be one of them). Yeah, I can find many reasons not to like Mission Chinese Food, but frankly, I'm too into these darn chicken wings to pay them any mind.
From what I hear, it can be tough to get in here at night. But they open at 11, so go for lunch, or better yet, go during the lull in the midafternoon.
Bon Appetit just named Mission Chinese Food the second best new restaurant in America, which makes me wonder how freaking awesome must the number one be?
For the record, we skipped the Burmese and hit the pizza for dinner.