Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yet Still More SF Cheap Eats: Mission Chinese

There is only one more after this.  San Francisco is a foodie's fever dream - there is just so much to see and do.  Already I'm planning my next trip in which I want to focus on Oakland which my friend from
Berkeley tells me is the new food hot spot. 

Meanwhile, back to the Mission which is a food hot spot right now that has me overwhelmed and running around trying to decide which places I should eat in and which ones will have to wait until my next visit.

This makes me wonder about my experiences in New York, and why I don't feel so overwhelmed there.  I think in part it's because I limit myself to my neighborhood (Lower East Side/East Village) and cooking at home.  I know I could never really cover the food/restaurant scene in NYC so I have a very defined focus.  Although there are lots of places to eat out, when I'm at home I'd rather cook, support farmers and enjoy the pleasures of home cooking.  Not to mention that it is much cheaper (and often better tasting) to eat at home.  

The buzz around Mission Chinese is considerable; first off they donate 75 cents of each entree to the SF Food Bank, which is reason enough to eat at this funky hipster Chinese place at 2234 Mission street.  

Danny Bowien and Anthony Myint are the guys behind Mission Chinese and their concept is admirable: take over a defunct, run of the mill low end Chinese restaurant (Lung Shan, the sign is still out front), move in and with minimal fuss create a kind of Pirandello-esque Chinese restaurant within a Chinese restaurant. 
Instead of the usual high voltage lighting the owners have turned off the overhead lights and hung up a bunch of 99 cent store mini Christmas lights that give the place a nice warm glow.
So far so good.  I sat at the front of the room by the door, the vacuum, the ladder and the rest of the junk they are apparently too busy to put away.  Which as a former theater person I don't understand:  restaurants are theater.  So even if yours is the theater of impromptu funky it would take 2 minutes to take this junk into the back.  There is no front of house staff or bus boy; the entire place is run by Mr. Bowien and I'm going to guess Mr. Myint, the latter who I am assuming was my waiter.  He was sweet and apologetic and once I got my menu (and really it didn't take more then 5 minutes so I was fine) the food came quickly.  The room was about half full, I arrived around 9 on a Sunday night.  I'd tried to go for lunch but was confused by the signage and the look of the place during the day so went somewhere else and did more research before trying to find the place again.
 Danny Bowien wrote in SF Eater and talked about his focus for the restaurant:

"The idea behind mission Chinese food is quite simple. A lot of people think of Chinese food as sweet and sour pork and walnut prawns. And no matter what they say on the menu, it's usually not 'spicy.'
...And although we enjoy sweet and sour (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, etc.) as much as the next guy, there are so many different types of Chinese food that we are excited about and feel challenged to make. Islamic Chinese. Sichuan. Taiwanese. (no stinky tofu, sorry can't get behind that one.) So there. We want to make delicious, frequently spicy Chinese food, besides what everyone already gets delivered, without m.s.g., with responsibly sourced proteins and vegetables. Seven days a week. All day long. "

"Great!"  I think to myself and when I look at the menu on line I see he has several items reminiscent of my favorite Chinese place in New York, Xian Famous Food, where I can't get enough of their spicy lamb soup and homemade noodles.

So I order Szechuan Pickles ($3) and Tingly Lamb Noodle Soup ($9) and a beer.

The presentation of the food is great and I was excited by the addition of Bok Choy to the soup (at Xian they don't have any veggies in the soup).  The noodles are handmade and the broth smells richly of lamb...but then I taste it...the entire dish is overwhelmed by something that I can't identify.  There is a saltiness to it that I find inedible, hours later in my hotel room I was still thirsty.  I left half of it and when I look back on the menu I see it says "numbing lamb broth".   For me in this instance numbing wasn't a good thing.  It just made the soup into one unpleasant flavor annihilating any of the complexity and subtlety that should have been there.  It was the first time I can ever remember in my life eating Asian Noodle soups where I was unable to finish every last drop. It was really disappointing. 

Ditto the beautiful pickles which were just salty and limp.  No sour or sweet notes to give it life.  I feel the need to say that salt and spice are two things I can usually never get enough of, so I don't think the problems here are my palate.  I'm the guy who adds hot sauce and salt to things before I have ever tasted them....
This was my last meal in San Francisco - it wasn't the high note that I had wanted to end on, but like I always say when I talk about eating out, it was just one meal once and we all have off days. I do think that the young owners of Mission Chinese would benefit from one other helping hand to greet people and clear tables.  Also a rule of thumb for restaurant owners is that you never give the check until it is asked for, just as I was about to order another beet mid meal my check was presented to me by Mr. Bowien.  Had I been lingering after my meal I could understand this but to be presented a check mid meal is a little off putting.  It seems to me from my dinning experience at Mission Chinese that a good front of house person would be great for business and let Mr. Bowien spend more time in the kitchen tasting the food he is sending out, so as to prevent the kind of experience I had.

Still, when all is said and done I admire greatly what these guys are doing, their generous spirit and the their creativity.  I hope they work out the kinks.  If you are reading this and have eaten here please leave a comment about your experience:  I'd love to hear it.

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