Authentic Chinese-American at Mission Chinese Food

We first met the ultra-talented Chef Danny Bowien when he was slinging Mission Burgers behind a counter at Duc Loi Grocery a few years back. Based on the granulated approach of the Heston Blumenthal Burger, the Mission Burger became an instant messy classic that was thankfully revived at Mission Bowling Club earlier this year. Along with partner Anthony Myint, Bowien was crucial to the success of the Mission Street Food group that spawned local favorites Commonwealth and Mission Chinese Food, one of the original pop-up restaurant-within-a-restaurant. Mission Chinese is located inside Lung Shan, a divey Chinese restaurant in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district.

Deterred by the contract which stated that neither Myint or Bowien were allowed to hire other cooks to take over Mission Burger at Duc Loi, they closed it so Bowien could channel his crazy genius into reinterpretations of many Chinese food classics with Mission Chinese Food. But instead of going for authenticity, Mission Chinese pays homage to ‘oriental’ Americanized-Chinese food. Korean-born but raised in Oklahoma, Bowien has a lot of fine dining experience, including being crowned a world champion pesto maker in Italy while he worked at Farina. When Mission Chinese Food first opened over the summer of 2010, diners were provided a 1 page laminated menu along with Lung Shan’s 100+ item menu. Lung Shan’s business was primarily takeout anyway, so the partnership continued as the pop-up restaurant eventually took over the premises as glowing local reviews started pouring in and long lines formed.

One had to wonder if he ever slept as Bowien was a constant presence at Mission Chinese Food, always tinkering or adding new items to the menu such as hand-made dumplings and bringing in BBQ. Mission Chinese Food, and Bowien in particular, continued to get all sorts of national love with restaurant critics, NY Times, Food and Wine magazine, an appearance on Martha Stewart and hanging out with Anthony Bourdain on his show. Unfortunately, you can’t keep a good chef down, and sadly, earlier this year he made a permanent move to New York to open a branch of Mission Chinese Food, importing a little bit of our City to the Big Apple. It was an instant success, even before they opened their doors, and now with hours+ waits for a table. If a chef can make it there, he can make it anywhere, and Bowien has hinted that other branches may open in Oklahoma and Paris (France, not Texas). He is still listed as Executive Chef here and occasionally comes back to visit, but Chef Jesse Koide, who worked with Bowien early on as sous chef, has taken over day-to-day duties.

Over the summer, lines remained long with locals and tourists alike, perhaps ignorant of the news that the local celebrity chef was no longer resident (or maybe it doesn’t matter). We waited out tourist season to check it out again — lucky for us, there was no wait when we walked in. The good news is that the food is still great. The restaurant is still called Lung Shan on the outside, and the decor and ambience is still very much a dingy Chinese restaurant with torn-vinyl stackable chairs, wood laminate tables and Communist Chinese art gracing the walls. The kick-starter dragon and paper lanterns hanging in the ceiling just add to the authenticity:

Today, the Lung Shan menu is no longer provided and the Mission Chinese menu now covers 2 pages. They do offer a few selections of beer and wine, but we always opt to go with good old Tsing Tao beer to drink with the spicy food. Most, if not all, dishes are wildly imaginative interpretations of Chinese fusion food such as Kung Pao Pastrami, Thrice Cooked Bacon with rice cakes and bittermelon, or baby bok choy in a popcorn broth. It’s hard to narrow down selections from the wide-ranging menu since everything is so good. Most dishes are large in size, so it’s best to just order and be prepared to take home leftovers.

When they first opened, the mouth-numbing Chongking Chicken Wings were so deeply buried under Szechuan peppers that they were not initially visible, and digging for them was part of the fun. The longer the wings sat under the wok-seared peppers, the hotter the wings got. The dish is still latently numbing, but bits of deep fried tripe now come with the visible wings:

Tangerine beef is usually made with corn-starch coated beef bites wok fried with an orange glaze. Mission Chinese’s Beef a L’Orange replaces the flank steak with super tender beef cheeks in their version. Kaffir lime leaves and satsuma tangerine slices complete the updated twist to the crispy classic:

We eenie-meenie-minie-moed our pork selection from a choice of Pig Ear Terrine, BBQ Pig Tails (with a smoked cola sauce) or Braised Red Pork Belly. As with all things in life, the bacon selection won out. What arrived were unctuously fatty and delicious large chunks of slow cooked pork topped with crunchy sesame seeds, and some broccoli thrown in for good measure:

With the poultry, beef and pork selection completed, we also opted for some starch in the form of the salt-cod fried rice. The saltiness of the fish was nicely offset with the sweetness of the Chinese lup cheong sausage. Scrambled egg, julienned ginger and minced scallions added some texture and more flavor to the fluffy rice:

The Mission Street Food gang are so close with the Lung Shan family that they have closed the restaurant temporarily to travel to China together. Perhaps the flavors of Mission Chinese are more authentic than they care to admit. The Braised Red Pork Belly reminded me of a dish I ate in Taipei on a trip earlier this year called Dong Po Rou, a pork belly specialty originally from Hangzhou. ‘Red braising’ is the process of stewing that imparts a reddish-brown color to the pork. The Taiwanese Dong Po Rou is shown behind the beef stew, neatly tied up and served with bok choy:

As with all of the other Mission Street Food enterprises, sharing is a big part of the restaurant where 75 cents from every dish is donated to charity. This philanthropic side can makes us all feel a little less guilty while chewing the pork fat.

Mission Chinese Food on Urbanspoon


One response to “Authentic Chinese-American at Mission Chinese Food

  1. Pingback: Big Lantern: The Other Mission Chinese Restaurant | BarFlySF·

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