I've seen the future of Modernist Cuisine, and it is a burger.
The most memorable meal I had in the past year was at Mission Chinese Food, the Sichuan-influenced, Chinese-American, run-from-inside-a-takeout-joint, we-give-our-money-to-charity, mind-blowingly delicious restaurant run by husband and wife team Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz under the helm of Chef Danny Bowien in San Francisco's Mission district.
For now, I'm here to tell you about the second most memorable meal I've had in the last year, which, oddly* enough, came from the same duo.
*Or is that predictably?
Most of you probably know their story by now. Mission Street Food had its haphazard start as a late-night mobile food truck, rented as a sublet by Myint and Leibowitz when the truck's owner took nights off. Eventually the business morphed into Mission Chinese Food, which opened inside Lung Shen restaurant in July of 2010. It was the first restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept I'd heard of. After opening Commonwealth Restaurant in August of 2010, they eventually found a permanent home for Mission Street Food when they entered a profit-sharing agreement with Sommer Peterson and Molly Bradshaw, the owners of Mission Bowling Club. Myint and Leibowitz run the kitchen.
Oh, and lest we forget, Myint and Mission Chinese partner Danny Bowien also briefly ran Mission Burger in the back of Duc Loi Market. The nine-month venture produced a burger that was as storied as it was short-lived. We'll get back to that.
Mission Bowling Club is a fully functional six-lane bowling club, complete with a bar. We were there to try the food, and man, what food it was. Carey and I stopped by after a weekend tour of Napa in the Serious Eats Ford Escape. Visiting in the late afternoon, we weren't around for the full-service dinner, but we did manage to order most items off the bar menu.
Juicy Sausage Corn Dogs ($7) are fennel-specked Italian sausage in a crisp corn batter that come to the table poking out of a slab of bowling lane parquet, its surface smeared with a mild habañero cream. This was the first of several excellent foods-on-a-stick.*
They once even had their own section on the menu
A couple that sat at the bar who'd ordered Thai Beef Jerky ($5) were taken aback when the waiter set down the plate. "This is just... beef jerky," said the startled woman, before sending it back to the kitchen, untouched. "I thought it'd be something, like, different."
She should have tasted it. Tender, beefy, and aromatic with a moist texture filled with crisp bits of fat that literally melt in your mouth, the jerky is made with green papaya (which contains natural enzymes to tenderize the meat), dehydrated, and served with a squeeze of lime. It's a great intro to the menu, which is full of dishes that for all intents and purposes read and look just like standard bar food. It's only after you taste it that you realize that it's unlike any you've ever had.
"Oh my god," was all that fellow Serious Eats Editor Carey Jones could say when she bit into an unassuming piece of Fried Chicken ($8). Your first impression is, this is the crispest fried chicken I've ever had, soon followed by holy sh*t, this is the chickeniest fried chicken I've ever had.
Myint shared some of his secrets with us later on. The dry base of the batter is made not just with seasoned flour, but with actual fried chicken skin that par-cooked and ground into the batter. Chicken breaded with chicken! For the liquid element, he cuts his batter with a few shots of vodka. Not only does this reduce gluten formation (which can lead to tough fried chicken), it's also far more volatile, leading to a lighter, crisper coating.
We were so lost in the chicken that we only noticed the pool of perfectly fine ranch dressing on the plate after we were finished.
Clearly, frying is one of MBC's strong suits. Consider Exhibit C: the Home Fries ($5). These are no ordinary spuds. Made by par-boiling baby potatoes until just barely falling apart, the potatoes are then roughed up a bit to increase the cracks and crevices on their surface, resulting in a fried potato with a massive surface area to volume ratio for maximum outer crunch, while still maintaining a soft, steamy center.
Of all the outstanding appetizers, only the Everything Pretzel ($8) failed to make a strong impression on us (despite a fantastic sweet and spicy lardo mostarda for dipping). There was nothing wrong with it, but it's far outshined by its superstar bandmates.
On the sandwich side, thick slices of tender Jerk Pork Shoulder ($11) come packed into a toasted Acme bun, sweet and bitter from grapefruit, with jicama adding its characteristic watery crunch. It's got a substantial but moist texture much more akin to corned beef or Pastrami than, say, pulled pork.
A Vegan Burger ($10) made falafel-like with a chickpea base riddled with kale and shiitake comes topped with a thick spoonful of guacamole. It's a proud reminder that "vegan" is not a synonym for "devoid of all pleasure." A dozen other vegetarian, gluten free, and vegan options appear in all sections of the menu. It's nice to see a chef this dedicated to non-meat options.
As for the famous Mission Burger? It makes a quiet reappearance on the menu here, in a slightly larger incarnation.
"It reminded me of what my first truly great burger experience was like."
I've eaten a lot of burgers in my days at Serious Eats. Enough that I rarely get excited by a new one, no matter how good. This is the only burger I've had in years that made me feel like a burger virgin, touched for the very first time. The relentless moisture, the intricate interplay of textures between the crisp charred crust seared in beef fat and the ultra-loose and tender center (achieved by a technique Myint calls "granulating"), the sheer beefiness of the thing; It reminded me of what my first truly great burger experience was like. I've never been so excited by a sandwich before.
There's a fine caper aioli, some nice caramelized onions, a slab of melty Jack cheese, and an excellent toasted bun from Acme bakery, but that's all window dressing for the glorious patty. It's made with a combination of short rib, hanger, and chuck, and is formed using a technique I first saw in Heston Blumenthal's Perfection series. The meat is ground to varying degrees of coarseness to add texture to each bite, then passed again through the grinder, where it's carefully cradled as it comes out of the die so that it the strands of meat all end up aligned like a giant coaxial cable. The meat is then wrapped and sliced into patties against the grain. What you end up with is a patty in which all the meat strands are aligned from top to bottom, creating a looser, more tender bite.
We've seen more than our share of burgers that get out of hand from modernist chefs who don't understand the basic beauty of a simple hamburger. More often than not, the essential burgerness gets lost in an effort to up the wow-that's-cool factor.
"This is the future of the Modernist cuisine movement"
Here, on the other hand, is a burger that is 100% burger to its core. The technique is completely in the service of the burger, not the other way around. Chefs, take note: This is the future of the Modernist cuisine movement. This is the right way to do it, and you have to admire a chef who is humble enough to apply these techniques without having to scream out to the world, "look what I've done!"
That Myint feels the need to apologize for a burger of this caliber priced at $15 is almost funny to me in its modesty. There hardly a bar or cafe in New York that doesn't charge at least, that much for their burger, and believe me, they aren't apologizing (nor are they donating $1 of each sale to charity, as Mission Bowling Club does).
I've never met a chef as humble, quiet, and soft spoken as Myint, and for me, it makes the experience all the better. Here's a chef doing exactly what it is that chefs are supposed to do: use every bit of skill, technique, and knowledge in their arsenal to construct the best tasting food they can. That those techniques and skills happen to be completely cutting edge is merely incidental.
Mission Bowling Club
Full Disclusore: The owners Anthony and Karen showed up a little ways into our meal and sat down to talk to us. All food was ordered before they arrived, and we paid full price for everything we tasted. We are confident that our experience of the quality of the food is reflective of the average customer experience.