Whenever I go to San Francisco (which has, admittedly, only been twice), there are two things—both food related—that must happen. One, of course, is a stop at In-N-Out for a burger (and probably two). The other is a trip to the Mission for Mission Chinese.
Mission Chinese Food, which was started by Chef Danny Bowien and partner Anthony Myint, began as a two-night-a-week pop-up in established Chinese takeout joint Lung Shan. As the Sichuanese pop-up grew more and more popular, the owners of Lung Shan eventually said the Mission Chinese folks should take over and serve their food full time, and they would ditch the normal Chinese takeout fare. The restaurant still has the original signage and Lung Shan name, with only a piece of paper posted in the doorway to tell you any different.
With most of the original décor and an impossibly tiny kitchen that you have to walk through to get to the bathroom, it’s easy to think maybe you walked into the wrong place—is this dining room with the peeling tables and cheap dragon lanterns really the critically acclaimed Sichuanese spot? Well, grab yourself a cheap Tiger beer and open the menu: you’re in for a surprise.
I’m not typically a fan of chicken wings—they’re too much work for too little payout—but the Chongqing wings are an absolute must-order. The right amount of spice, including powdered dried mushrooms, and a dusting of numbing Sichuan peppercorn make them irresistible. With much of Sichuanese cooking, I’ve found the more numbing and spicy it is, the more I can’t stop eating it. The Sichuan kimchi, with spicy macadamia oil and hijiki (a brown Japanese sea vegetable), is probably the best kimchi I’ve ever had. The smashed cucumber, with whipped tehina and black garlic oil and sorrel, was another palate pleaser.
We also tried one of their standard dishes, the kung pao pastrami, which I wasn’t able to get on my first trip in 2012 and I think I had been looking forward to ever since. Add to that the Westlake lamb dumplings, a perfect mix of Greek and Sichuan: fried dumplings in ma la vinaigrette with peanuts and tzatziki. A perfect balance of spicy vinaigrette cooled by the tzatziki. On my first visit, I’d also tried the ma pa tofu, one of my favorite Sichuanese dishes (and made to perfection with a hearty sauce with black beans and pork shoulder) and the cumin lamb belly with charred green beans. I wish I could’ve bottled the smell of the lamb belly, because it was one of the best-smelling dishes I think I’ve ever been in the same room with.
The flavors here are a bit more subtle and nuanced than at a lot of Sichuan restaurants I’ve been to, as is the spice level. Not to say that bold flavors and lots of spice are a bad thing; in fact, those are some of my favorite descriptors when it comes to food. But Mission Chinese does a great job of dialing back the spice just a bit so you can experience more of their incredibly original flavor combinations.
If you’re in San Francisco and you like food, you should not miss Mission Chinese. You shouldn’t miss the Mission in general, really, which is an incredibly colorful neighborhood with plenty of food, interesting people, an incredible Carlos Santana mural, and a wonderful park to lay back and enjoy the day. But definitely do Mission Chinese first.