Ever since Alan Richman raved about Mission Chinese (MC) a few years back, I knew I needed to add this to my foodie destination bucket list. Since then, Mission Chinese has received tons of positive accolades and write ups in various publications, including the Bon Appetit Magazine. For better or worse, this unassuming restaurant is no longer a secret or a hidden gem for San Fran hipsters. In fact, due to its popularity, owner Danny Bowien has since opened another location in New York City.
The original location is in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, a more ethnic community with lots of up-and-coming businesses. The place can be a bit hard to find because even as you plug the coordinates into your GPS, it drops you off at a place with a sign saying Lung Shan Restaurant. But yes, that is indeed Mission Chinese. The décor couldn’t be more ‘divey’ either, with its minimal seating, cheap Chinese ornaments and Christmas lighting on the wall. Oh, and there’s a paper dragon on the ceiling which breathes fire on people who take longer than 60 minutes to dine at the establishment.
The menu is straightforward, although very unusual in a good way. Dishes often feature Chinese style preparation with seasoning or ingredients more common in Thai, Vietnamese or Mediterranean cuisines. One of the guys in my party had already dined at MC several times, so he pointed us towards his favorites, which also happen to be signature dishes – Kung Pao pastrami and cod fried rice.
Wanting to sample as many items as possible, we ordered a bunch of dishes family style for the table. Per our server’s recommendation, we started with the tiger salad to open the palette, which was a mix of various leafy greens, mint and cilantro wrapped in a large rice noodle and dressed with a light vinegar and oil mixture. Each roll is meant to be eaten almost like a burrito, but you quickly resort to fork and chopsticks to clean up all the remnants that fall out of the noodle wrapping. It was a tasty dish which served its purpose. Next up were the Mongolian long beans, prepared with Xinjiang spices, horseradish and chili oil (the chili oil is a recurring theme at Mission Chinese). When the dish came to our table it looked and smelled so appetizing we all dug right into it, completely disregarding the fact that this dish is one of the spicier offering on the MC menu. I really enjoyed the spice and overall loved the dish, but will note that the aggressive and pungent amount of spice just destroyed a few of my dining companions’ palettes for the rest of the meal.
Next up was the Kung Pao pastrami and the cod fried rice. By now the restaurant was slammed with customers and water service was slowly dwindling. Admittedly, my mouth was also moderately on fire at this point, but oh well, I’m on vacation, right? The cod fried rice actually did cool the palette a bit and all in all was a pretty stellar dish. The rice was very fluffy but not mushy and the light aromatics of egg, scallion and spices were well-balanced. The cod in the dish is actually salt cod, which is a dried and intensified rendering of the fish. The salt cod provided subtle undertones of saltiness and brininess, unless you got a whole bite of the cod. I think the salt cod should have been broken into smaller pieces to properly perfume the dish and provide a portion in each bite.
The Kung Pao pastrami was interesting but I’m not sure it really lived up to the hype. I think people who love this dish get caught up in the celebrity of it, or just the fact that it is so unique. The pastrami for example was just way too pungent for the gentle flavors of celery, onion and carrot. Also, my favorite part about Kung Pao is the abundance of peanuts, which are few and far between in this dish. All in all it was a good dish, but I was enjoying the bites that didn’t have the pastrami more than the bites that did. The dish blended well with the cod fried rice though.
Last up were the sizzling cumin lamb ribs. Don’t confuse this with lamb chops because the ribs naturally have more fat and less meat – they were very good though. Each rib was very crispy, yet not greasy, and had an aroma of smokiness and cumin. The ribs were served on a bed of stir fried onion and celery, which was a bit of an afterthought. I thought the crispy ribs could have used a light side sauce to really elevate the dish to sublime status.
As our meal came to an end we felt obligated to try and vacate our table as soon as possible, since there was now a line out the door. It gave us little time to really dwell on the meal we just had and also recalibrate our palette from the spiciness. We weren’t too bothered though since we had a full night of finding ice cream and then a wine bar ahead of us.
All in all, my experience at Mission Chinese was very positive. The restaurant embraces its hole-in-the-wall or be-in-the-know reputation and the menu delivers knockout punches with each dish. I would love to come here again to try the many other items on the menu which really sounded good, but that I may have disregarded knowing I was getting the pastrami. Also, the prices at this restaurant are good by most Chinese restaurant standards, but in San Francisco they are an absolute bonus. Service was quick and prompt, mostly because it has to be, but our server didn’t mind taking time to explain dishes or answer general questions about the restaurant.
This restaurant was really cool in the end and for the most part lived up to the hype. I think I will enjoy this place more on my second visit, now that I am more familiar with the cuisine and its nuances. Is an excuse to come back to San Francisco ever a bad thing?