Bay City Guide: This Eccentric Restaurant is San Francisco's Best Kept Secret
It was a Friday night. A dinner invite was accepted from a new circle of friends. The location, we were told, would be a Chinese restaurant in the infamous Mission District. We were hopeful. Mission District is an eclectic and vibrant neighborhood, known for its chef-driven eateries and its hipster vibe. Tattoo parlors line the corners, and colorful murals decorate the walls. It's just a whole mood. So I dressed the part -- some funky Vince shoes, a new pair of Rag and Bone distressed skinnies, a mild belly skin (winter was approaching), and a long coat incase it got nippy.
At 6pm we started our mission to the cultural enclave, traversing down the dark, sometimes-grungy streets you often find in this area. An hour later (traffic...ugh), we arrived on the street with our restaurant. At first glance, there weren't any discernible restaurants around that looked like anything to write home about. But our hosts are renowned foodies, known to experiment ... so we trusted the adventure and took a leap of faith.
Mission District | Photo Cred: Deatrick San Francisco
THERE WAS A GLOWY HALO OF RED LIGHT COMING FROM INSIDE AND WE COULD HEAR AN EXOTIC PULSATING RYTHYM FILLING THE ROOM. THIS FUNKY HIDEAWAY MUST BE IT, WE THOUGHT.
The approaching scene was lively mixed with an underground-ish mood, bordering on derelict at times. The restaurant is said to attract San Francisco's hipsters, millennials and the tech elite -- and I could see the charm. There were vendors selling food on the sidewalks, with smoke and aromas filling the air. There was an old tattoo shop on the corner (of course) and an overall enigma that mixed with the smokey air. And then out of nowhere, we stumbled upon this ... opening. We could barely see through the door, because people were literally pouring out the entrance. There was a glowy halo of red light coming from inside and we could hear an en exotic, pulsating rhythm filling the room. This funky hideaway must be it, we thought.
The line kept growing outside -- almost unmanageable. But we were ecstatic, because this is the number one indication of a hidden treasure. Plus, we had a reservation. But everyone looked amped to be there. There was an electrifying mood out there in the dropping temperatures, and I pictured in my mind one of those zombie movies, where the zombies are just waiting for nightfall to rush in some abandoned warehouse with scared, hiding humans inside. We started to get excited.
Inside Mission Chinese | Photo Cred: Pinterest
THERE WERE HUGE PAPER CHINESE DRAGONS LINING THE CEILING, AND THE DIM, COLORED LIGHTS GAVE INSIDE A MENACING-BUT-WARM, MYSTERIOUS MOOD. FUN WILL BE HAD TONIGHT.
Our name got called within 5 minutes. We squeezed through the crowd under the scaffolding that shielded us from the elements while we waited, and made our way into the small, cramped restaurant. Everyone there just had a look. I immediately took off my coat because the temperature was now rising, but more importantly, I wanted to show off my full outfit. As we were going in, a plate with a gigantic whole fried fish was on its way to some lucky diner, almost in slow motion. "Why do I feel like I'm in a movie?" -- I kept asking myself. It was like we were in another world. There were huge paper Chinese dragons lining the ceiling, and the dim, colored lights gave inside a menacing-but-warm, mysterious mood. Fun will be had tonight. The tables were super close, which funnily added to the whole theatrical drama. The wait staff seemed accommodating, but not gushing. They know what they have.
Inside Mission Chinese | Photo Cred: Pinterest
Our hosts handled the ordering, while I slipped in the restroom. To get to the restroom, I actually had to walk through the kitchen where a whole team of magicians were busy chopping, tossing, dipping, pouring, and totally unconcerned with the sporadic invasions. My mind automatically shifted to those quintessential action movies, where the bad guys run through the kitchen (why do they always do this?), breaking and shoving everything in their way.
THERE WAS A TOFU DISH THAT LITERALLY FELT LIKE A PARTY IN MY MOUTH ... IT WAS LIKE A CULINARY LSD ... I DIDN'T KNOW WHETHER I LIKED IT OR HATED IT ... BUT I COULDN'T STOP EATING IT.
Before we knew it, a kitchen-load of dishes started pouring on the table -- tapas style. And this is where the adventure truly began -- one that has never left me, or my taste buds. The first dish I tried was a smashed cucumber dish with tehina and sichuan pepper granola. It had a bold array of flavors and a wild spin on this ordinary salad staple. Then I moved on to an oxtail dumpling. The chef had the audacity to pair it with a tahini-based dipping sauce. How ingenious! There was a tofu dish called Mouth Numbing Tofu Mapo that literally felt like a party in my mouth. It gave off these sensations and aromas as I was eating it ... it was like a culinary LSD (I would imagine). My mind tavelled. I paired it with their salt cod rice and their infamous garlic fried chicken, and the pairing was transcendental. I didn't know whether I liked it or hated it to be honest ... but all I knew was I couldn't stop eating it. The flavors and combinations were totally new to me.
The next morning, the hallucinations continued. I woke up with a feeling of mystery and longing. I was still trying to decipher what I had experienced the previous night. And I still couldn't tell whether I even liked it, but I just needed to experience it again. Two nights later, we booked another table and went back.
Danny Bowien, Mission Chinese. Photo credit: Krista Schlueter via The New Yorker
Where is this secret society of culinary gods, you ask? Without further delay, as you would have already guessed, the restaurant is Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese. Danny was born in South Korea and adopted by American parents in Oklahoma. He made a name for himself with his fusionist approach to Chinese food and for taking risks with his combinations. If you are in San Francisco (or New York for that matter), and are an adventurous foodie with an appreciation for a little exotic, grungy-chic vibes, then you must visit this place.