It’s unlikely to find so much national buzz emanate from a neighborhood Chinese joint, but that’s exactly what Anthony Myint, Karen Leibowitz and chef Danny Bowien managed to generate at Mission Chinese Food, a cutting-edge Chinese restaurant that occupies Lung Shan, which would pretty much have to look like the prototypical dive to passersby, but isn’t.
At least part of the restaurant’s appeal would have to come down to community. Myint and Leibowitz begin by sharing some love on the menu, proudly displaying a photo of Lung Shan’s kitchen family: Sue, Liang, Lo Lei, T-Bone, Auntie and Shifu. Prior to my meal at Mission Chinese Food, the entire crew had just returned from an R&D trip to China. Clearly they’re close. Just wait, it gets even better. $0.75 from each entree benefits the San Francisco Food Bank. They’ve built up a lot of good will, to the point that diners would likely be forgiving of the food, not they need to be.
Seat yourself, or sign a list upon entering the dive-y Mission spot with a colorful paper dragon, rickshaw logo and paintings of horses, Chinese dignitaries and peacocks. This may be the only Chinese restaurant that displays the Noma cookbook, which rested on a shelf near the soda fridge.
Pickles predominate at Bay Area restaurants, and Mission Chinese Food featured one of the most intense versions. Szechuan Pickles ($3) involved pungent salt-pickled cabbage, crunchy cucumber, roasted peanuts, fresh coriander (aka cilantro) and spicy chili oil.
Even before Mission Chinese Food graced the pages of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant issue, the restaurant was already the place to be. Two respected restaurant pros were there during my meal, including Bar Agricole owner Thad Vogler and ink. General Manager Josh Goldman, in town prior to his restaurant’s debut. It was particularly good to run into him, since he just finished eating with a group of friends and was ready with recommendations. Goldman instantly keyed on the Savory Egg Custard ($12), saying, “This is easily one of the most rad things I put in my mouth all weekend.” That guaranteed an order for my table. It was excellent, with silky custard, creamy sea urchin and cured trout roe that burst with brine, all submerged in a sweet rice wine and garnished with aromatic shiso leaf. Rad? Hell yeah.
At the time of my arrival, they’d run out of dumplings, but the chef took to the showcase prep area that faced Mission Street. He started rolling dough to make dumpling skins. Our particular order of Shanghai Fish Dumplings ($10) had fine wrappers, but the filling of poached yellowtail was bland, and the super-fine texture came off as mushy. Even the golden chives and green peppercorn bouillion couldn’t salvage the dumplings, but really, this was the meal’s only misstep.
Xi’An Lamb ($12.50) was an especially rich dish, with lip tingling chile oil loaded with tender, fatty lamb cheek, cuts of smoky merguez sausage, preserved turnip greens, shaved cucumber and fresh ramen noodles. This was like no ramen I’d encountered before, which is a shame.
Thrice Cooked Bacon ($10) was a fun play on a popular Hunan-style dish involving meaty pork belly with caramelized streaks of fat, chewy, seared rice cakes, and strips of intensely bitter melon, all bombarded with scallions, black beans and chile oil. The only more-or-less-neutral element in this powerhouse dish was the tofu skins.
My father, stepmother and I ordered five dishes, which was already plenty of food for three people, but the menu was too enticing to resist a sixth: Salt & Pepper Shrimp ($12.50). Chef Bowien hooked us with “curried pork fat,” which raised the stakes on an already addictive plate of sweet, shell-on shrimp. Fennel, onions, fried garlic, cilantro and green chilies continued to pour on spice and jolt.
Mission Chinese Food was indeed an exciting experience, with limited decor, but bold flavors. Just think, eating at the restaurant benefits a worthy cause. 3x Cooked Bacon AND Karma? Count me in.