Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mission Chinese Food - 08/03/2012

2234 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-2800

Typically when a restaurant goes from pop-up to permanent that really says something about the quality of the food. Mission Chinese managed not only to take over its original location but open a second branch in New York and get named one of the best new restaurants in the country. Naturally with so much hype, a meal here was a must.

Mission Chinese's claim to fame is its complicated yet quirky style of Americanized Chinese food to San Francisco's Mission District. The restaurant's founder, Danny Bowien is equally unconventional: a Korean brought up in Oklahoma with no previous experience cooking Chinese food. As the pictures below attest, the restaurant itself remains relatively unchanged from its days as Lung Shan, a run down fairly nondescript Chinese restaurant.

I was surprised at the beer selection as hipster staples like PBR felt better suited to the vibe at Mission Chinese. Though I was intrigued by the beer from Iceland it lacked the citrus and coriander that I associate with Witbier making this more reminiscent of a hefeweizen. Some of my friends likened the watermelon wheat to drinking a Jolly Rancher; while I got some melon flavor I thought that was more of an afterthought. The IPA was much less interesting than the watermelon wheat, but the bitter hops were well-suited to countering the spice and salt of the food. No Chinese dinner would be complete without a cold Tsing Tao, though naturally this was the least interesting of the beers.

SAVORY EGG CUSTARD - sea urchin, trout roe, citron, apple, green perilla
Though I can't think of a traditional Chinese analogue, this was easily the best course of the meal. The eggy funk is overlayed with strong briney flavors from the duet of roe while the fruits give the the broth a lively fruity relish.

This thing certainly lived up to its billing, it was actually difficult to find the chicken beneath all the dried peppers. The few pieces of tender chicken were doused in a spicy powder that started of with a slow burn but that eventually stole all sensation.

MARRIED COUPLE'S BEEF - sliced beef tongue, heart, tripe, numbing chili, peanuts, cilantro
Though I don't know what it says about married life, texturally the offal was fantastic and very reminiscent of "ping pan," a plate of cold meats commonly served at banquets and marriages. With my palate still reeling from the last course I wasn't able to taste much and the numbing chili in this course didn't help matters any.

"MOUTH WATERING" CHICKEN - seared chicken hearts, vegetable noodles, szechuan pepper
With the sheer amount of numbing chili, I could have very well been drooling and I wouldn't have known any better. The snap of the chicken hearts was quite satisfying with the thin crunch of the vegetable noodles. The overall flavor reminded me of hóng yóu chao shou, a classic Szechuan dish of boiled dumplings and chili oil.

TIGER SALAD - xi'an herbs and lettuces, turnip vinegar, chili oil
The last of our cold dishes the crisp cool vegetables were just the thing to cleanse the palate after all that numbing spice. Though the salad had some kick of its own, it was balanced by the aromatic fragrance of the herbs and bitter lettuce.

RED BRAISED PIG TAILS - root beer, sweet & sour pineapple, plum sauce, salted cucumber
Despite being called red braised, the tails had more of a fried character to them. Underneath the crisp shell, the fat is nicely rendered and exudes an intense porcine savor. Despite all the high fat content, the tails have an incongruous levity thanks to the acidic twang of the the pineapple and plum sauce

SALT COD FRIED RICE - mackerel confit, chinese sausage, egg, scallion
With a strong savor this was actually a pretty solid fried rice however I was expecting the mackerel to play a bigger role. In the end, this was the most traditional tasting of all the dishes and while I found it tasty, some of my party found it a bit boring.

STIR-FRIED PORK JOWL AND RADISHES - fermented black bean, mint, red perilla
The jowl was cooked beautifully with a mix of snappy lean meat and flavorful fat. I couldn't really make out the funk I associate with fermented black bean but I certainly got their saltiness. The radishes provided a countervailing bitterness but both flavors were so intense instead of tempering each other the contrast felt jarring.

KUNG PAO PASTRAMI - explosive chili, celery, potato, roasted peanut
I think this dish nicely captures the combination of Chinese flavor with contemporary American techniques that Mission is known for. Smoky spicy and with plenty of fat, the dish certainly had all the characteristics of a pastrami, but using such a full flavored proteins left little room for the sauce to show.

WESTLAKE RICE PORRIDGE - hangar steak, rock shrimp, soy-cured egg, cilantro

Along with the fried rice, the porridge was the other hot course that I enjoyed. While the broth felt a bit thin texturally but still conveyed classic clean mellow savor I associate with the soup. The addition of the porridge provided some semblance of substance that the soup lacked on its own. The egg was also a surprise imbued with the flavor of soy and a core that was like a dense jelly. Warm, hearty, and soulful one of my friends remarked that this would be a fantastic hangover cure.

SIZZLING CUMIN LAMB - salt & peppered lamb belly, chili-pickled long beans
By this point I was pretty much expecting another salt-bomb and this dish certainly delivered. Earthy and pungent the high fat content of the ribs made this a particularly gamy preparation. Like most of the other meat dishes, the lamb was well cooked and tender but just way too salty.

MA PO TOFU - berkshire pork shoulder, broadbean paste, chili oil
After so many over seasoned courses this one jest felt bland by comparison. I was really looking forward to the pork shoulder but all I got out of this course was chunk after chunk of tofu. To make matters worse, the kitchen chose medium tofu which made it hard for any flavor to permeate the cubes.

For a meal that began with such promise things quickly fell apart as we moved to the hot courses. I will say the ingredient quality is definitely a cut above your typical Chinese fare but for the flavors are blunt and clumsy. Aside from the initial egg course, most of the cold dishes relied on numbing spice, but that was at least manageable whereas some of the hot dishes were so salty to the point of being inedible. To be fair, Szechuan food is known for being full-flavored, but this was far beyond full-flavored; ultimately I appreciate what Mission Chinese is trying to accomplish even if I didn't enjoy the execution.


sygyzy said...

I have never been and have only heard great things about Mission Chinese, but I have to say that looked like a god-awful meal. No offense, not appetizing at all.

Aaron said...

I went there only back in June and it looks like the menu is almost completely different. That's so rare in Chinese restaurants to have changing dishes.

Epicuryan said...

Why would I be offended I agree with you. I wonder if the food has declined because Chef Bowien is more involved with the New York outpost and neglecting the SF site.

Yeah part of their using local ingredients means they have to change. Definitely rare for a true Chinese restaurant, but probably more common at gentrified places like this one.

Anonymous said...

"Flavors are blunt and clumsy" sums it all up, which funnily enough is in stark contrast to that first savory egg custard dish.

completely agree w all thoughts here.

Epicuryan said...

You know, for someone who nominally lives in Asia you sure have been to lots of new restaurants in the US.

NicoleM said...

Aw that's sad you didn't have an amazing meal :( Last two times I was in NY went to Mission Chinese & Danny was in house cooking up a storm. Totally loved that egg custard & the thrice cooked bacon is amazing!

Epicuryan said...

I suspect New York's food is a cut above since Danny is actually there cooking. The custard was amazing, everything else not so much.