Mission Chinese Food is indescribably. Is it a pop-up? Is it a shared restaurant? Is it really Chinese food?
Nothing really applies to this uniquely San Francisco restaurant, which originally began as a weekly pop-up with visiting guest chefs in a longtime divey Chinese restaurant and then turned into a modern Chinese-American spot attracting foodies worldwide.
I visited the restaurant when it was Mission Street Food, an undefined dining experience with rotating chefs at the Lung Shan Chinese restaurant in the Mission District. Back then, co-partner Anthony Myint was redefining food service by using a shared kitchen and donating some of the proceeds of the restaurant to local charities.
But after Myint went on to focus on other projects (such as the nearby Commonwealth), another co-partner Danny Bowien took the lead with the Lung Shan location, creating a permanent menu that played on his background of eating greasy Chinese-American dishes growing up in Middle America.
I finally went to Mission Chinese Food last week with a bunch of other food bloggers (Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging, Joanne of Jo Boston Is a Foodie, and Edda of A Housewife’s Tale). I mean, when going for Chinese food it’s good to have a crowd.
Mission Chinese Food hasn’t changed much from its days as Mission Street Food. Except for the addition of a large dragon floating near the ceiling, there were still the communist propaganda posters, unmatched silverware and plates, and Christmas lights along the wall.
The menu was split between cold and hot dishes, with the hot dishes having several chili pepper marks to denote the spicy plates taking on the flavors of Szechuan cuisine. I let my other dining partners do most of the ordering since they were all excited about trying a variety of dishes. My only suggestion (which, again, I’m always trying to be the healthy voice of reason) was to order a vegetable dish.
Before I get to the food, I did want to note the service, which had that Mission hipster feel of whatever. The servers come to get your order and bring your food, but pretty much leave you alone until you’re ready to pay. As for the pacing of the entrees, there weren’t any.
In fact, our group ordered close to eight dishes and they all came to our table in a span of five minutes. (Don’t know if that’s the norm or if it’s because we got there early and the kitchen had nothing to do.) This might be fine if you’re in a rush to head off to a movie or concert, but having all the dishes filling our tiny table didn’t help plates like the Lamb Face Noodle Soup ($11), where the Shanghai noodles sat in the spicy soup broth while we tried to make a dent in the other dishes. It also didn’t help us appreciate the different dishes because after awhile they all melded into one. (Our table was also very quiet because with so many dishes to work on, all we could do was chew, chew, chew.)
As for the food, the chefs at Mission Chinese Food definitely know their meat. Every dish that included meat (which at our table was maybe 90 percent of the dishes) were perfectly cooked, from the spicy Kurobuta pork shoulder in the Ma Po Tofu ($11) to the Sizzling Cumin Lamb ($13).
The kitchen also likes to play with fire with the many spicy dishes, giving the entrees a bold, in-your-face profile. The spice level (you actually can’t adjust it, it just comes out at one level) is strong but not douse-your-mouth-with-yogurt hot — like the Ma Po Tofu, which had a spiciness that crept up on you rather than hit you in the face.
The cold Szechuan Pickles ($3.50) did help to cool my mouth with the crunchy cucumbers that were tasty but not overly hot from the chili oil. Another cold dish, the Savory Egg Custard ($12) was unique with its complex flavors with hints of Japanese (there were uni or sea urchin, trout roe and green perilla or shiso). It actually wasn’t my favorite, but Sandy and Joanne loved it.
A few of the other dishes were unremarkable, almost like standard Chinese food you can get at any other Chinatown restaurant. I thought Mission Chinese Food wanted to reinterpret Chinese food, but it seemed like they only do it for a few dishes, while presenting traditional plates such as the Salt Cod Fried Rice ($10) and Mongolian Long Beans ($10).
Mission Chinese Food continues to donate a portion of its proceeds (to the San Francisco Food Bank) and is spreading its mission of modern Chinese food by opening a second location to rave reviews in New York. I found its take on Chinese food to be strong and directed, but not as innovative as others made it out to be. It’s a novel idea but it has some ways to go before it can really be seen as a new chapter in Chinese-American food.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Mission Chinese Food, 2234 Mission St., San Francisco (inside the Lung Shan restaurant). PH: 415.863.2800. Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily (except Wednesday). No reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.missionchinesefood.com
You can check out Foodhoe’s memories of our dinner on her post here.
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