Sometimes the perfect solution to the summer drawl is a long overdue road trip. I visited SF in the first time in a decade (yeah it’s been that long). It was me and the girls and a very memorable 80s night at the oh-so-hipster Cat Club and a less memorable one at some Asian joint with a crowd awfully reminiscent of the SGV (hah).
Though our itinerary revolved around the nightlife, the standout of the weekend trip was Mission Chinese Food.
Yes, I’ve heard the laments of SF Chinese food. How it doesn’t compare to Los Angeles and that it’s stuck in that Gold Rush, Chinese take-out, tacky era. But I knew I couldn’t leave without trying Mission Chinese Food.
Now, part of my job is to round-up weekly reviews and constantly digest the NY restaurant industry. And let me tell you, the pan-Asian/fusion has been the summer trend in the big city. Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok NY and Bowien’s Mission Chinese are drawing so many people to the other side of the river that restaurant critics are actually taking off points for the wait and the hefty cab fare. I’ve put in so many mention’s for Danny Bowein’s newly-opened and over-hyped Mission Chinese in New York that I felt like I knew the menu inside-and-out already.
So I did it. I dragged Lani across the town and sat her down at Mission Chinese. The criticisms came rolling in.
A little background about Lani. She hails from Yunnan (think spicy food that’s awfully common to Sichuan). And she also happens to be one of the most passionate and patriotically Chinese people I know. In high school, she’d run around campus singing the Chinese anthem.
“This fried rice tastes like the stuff we have at home.”
“This decor is so stupid.”
“This is 100% marketing.”
“It’s good, but why is it famous again?”
“I would come here again. But I would never take my parents here. Never.”
I agree. Mission Chinese food is delicious. Better than the stuff I’ve had in New York and probably better than a lot of mom-and-pop SF Chinese restaurants too.
But from the perspective of people who grew up eating Chinese food — it’s nothing special. Dishes like Mission’s are accessible at mom-and-pops in the SGV. The problem? These “authentic” restaurants aren’t Western-friendly. The menu translations are a bit odd, the interior a little sketchy, and the atmosphere — nowhere as chic and comfy as Mission Chinese.
As I explained to Lani the background of Mission Chinese and the hype surrounding it, she got noticeably annoyed. And as I told her the stories behind Yunnan Kitchen (chef Travis Post) and Pok Pok NY (chef Andy Ricker), I could tell she wanted to scream. It was the same debate we’ve heard over and over again (see: Eddie Huang vs. Francis Lam).
“These guys are just taking other people’s culture, remarketing it, and making money off of it.”
I thought back to the article of Bowien + Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit in Chengdu that spurred similar emotions within me from a journalistic perspective.
Our heated conversation on Chinese food died down eventually as we enjoyed our amazingly crispy fried chicken and soaked in the mala flavors of the mapo tofu. Next we were off debating about why “Asian night clubs” even existed.
But it all goes back to the same themes: authenticity, marketing, and owning up to culture.
Lung Shan Restaurant
2234 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110