I’ve been unreasonably suspicious about the new trend of so-called “Americanized” Chinese food ever since I had a bad experience with this kind of restaurant in Seattle. So when I was last in San Francisco and my reliable foodie friends C and A said that they wanted to take me to Mission Chinese Food, I announced grandiosely and unpleasantly that I wasn’t interested, and could they take me somewhere else? For a burrito perhaps? “Come on, Sooz,” said A reproachfully. “Have we ever taken you anywhere you didn’t like? Do you think we’d suggest a restaurant to you if we didn’t think it was good?” I immediately felt horribly guilty. Of course I’d go to Mission Chinese Food. I wanted nothing more. I was sure it would be fantastic. I wasn’t, really, but it’s true that C and A have never taken me for a bad meal. (I wish I could say the same.)
I hadn’t done my research (i.e., I’ve been living in London for the past two years), but if I had I would have known that Mission Chinese Food was opened by one of San Francisco’s culinary darlings and, in the year and a half it has been open, has taken San Francisco by storm, wowing even cranky critics like Alan Richman. Even knowing this, Mission Chinese Food is nothing like what I would have expected. It shares space with the Lung Shan restaurant on 18th and Mission — apparently there literally are two different menus — and it looks like it hasn’t been remodelled since that restaurant opened circa 1960-something. (For me this is not a demerit; I distrust restaurants with excessively nice interiors.) Cheap plywood tables are set up in a dark coffin-shaped room barely illuminated by lights covered with Chinese paper globes, with a row of tables down the center creating a sort of communal-dining-cum-school-lunchroom feel. Bowls and plates and carry-out containers are heaped on shelves and, although art is not a prominent feature, there are some fabulous prints on the walls.
Usually there are lines out the door but when we arrived for lunch, the restaurant was half-full. At a table at the back of the room two baleful Chinese ladies were picking a massive pile of herbs. I immediately felt cheered. I felt even more so when I saw the menu. Chef Daniel Bowien has a love affair with Szechuan food, and it shows in his heavy use of Szechuan pepper, pickle, chilli, and offal, but the best way to describe the menu is as a sort of an urban hipster chef’s Chinese food fantasy. I was literally stymied because there was so much I wanted to try, but C and A knew their way around the menu and fired off several suggestions. I was happy to let them drive (and I was still making up for being horrible earlier).
From the cold dishes menu, Szechuan pickles ($3.50, pickled napa cabbage with carrot, peanut, coriander and chilli oil) were not so much spicy as astringent and assertive, with a funky, earthy tang reminiscent of kimchi. Hot and sour cucumber ($4), likewise was crunchy and fresh with a pungent kick of dried shrimp and a permeating flavour of toasted sesame seeds. The Westlake Rice Porridge ($11) – i.e., congee – made with oxtail, Dungeness crab, and soft poached egg was extraordinarily good, with glorious depth from the oxtail and decadent meaty chunks of fresh crab. Hainam Chicken Rice ($7), a huge plate of boiled chicken with rice dressed with Shaoxing rice wine, chicken fat, cilantro and peanuts was a sleeper hit: delicately sweet, almost restrained, and deceptively simple. Comfort food.
I was sad to turn down the exciting Mongolian-influenced lamb dishes, but there was no way I was leaving without trying the Kung Pao Pastrami ($11), and there was no way C was leaving without ordering Mission Chinese Food’s chicken wings ($7 or $10 I think, available only on the eat-in menu). Combining pastrami with Szechuan cooking is a BRILLIANT concept. Thin slices of deliciously salty smoky pastrami are fried with slices of potato, chilis, and Szechuan pepper. This dish packed a wallop, and by wallop I mean smacks you in the face with flavour. It’s very spicy, a little greasy, and utterly satisfying.But the chicken wings. My god. They should come with a warning label. Imagine salty spiced wings fried in a blazingly hot wok until the skin is papery, blistered, and very crispy. Now add chilis and a lot of Szechuan pepper. A LOT. With the first crunchy bite the buzzing, numbing Szechuan pepper spreads itself over your lips and tongue, which immediately feels like it has swelled to the size of your face. Then there’s a fatty hit of hot juicy chicken, but of course the more you eat (and this is an addicting dish) the more Szechuan pepper you consume until half your taste buds are tranquilized, and the dominant flavour is a sour tang. Insane.I’ve been complaining about the gentrification of the Mission for years (hypocritically – I love the fancy cocktails and the cute shops, even if I now can’t afford to eat at half the restaurants), but as we were paying our bill I said casually to C, “There’s a half-naked guy with nunchucks by the door.” He stood there a good while – the restaurant was very busy now and I don’t think the staff noticed him right away – and as we walked out past him he decisively squeezed my and then C’s behind. He was, of course, floridly crazy and high on something, and didn’t go far from the exit even when the poor chef himself came out and shouted at him. I wasn’t too bothered. The Mission is still the Mission, and Mission Chinese Food fits right in.
Mission Chinese Food
In the Lung Shan Restaurant, 2234 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Price per person: under $20
The verdict: I’d eat here again