I walk into Lung Shan Restaurant and read the sign just inside the door: “Mission Chinese Food, sit anywhere.” Around the one-room restaurant on the corner of 18th and Mission Street, Christmas lights hang low on the walls. On each table sits a vase holding a single silk rose.
In short, MCF seems like a typical, if romantically-lit, Chinese restaurant. But there is nothing common about this place -- not the menu, not the owner, least of all the food.
Chef Danny Bowien has never been to China. He’s a Korean American guy from Oklahoma. He previously co-owned Mission Street Food, where he and his partner served up creations like the Peking Chinito. But when we spoke, he told me that his goal was to make honest-to-goodness, authentic Chinese food, what he and his friends ate with family. So MCF has a very particular audience in mind. Basically, though this is my paraphrase, Danny wants to serve people like me: lost souls who wander the streets fantasizing about American home style Chinese. And by “American home style,” I mean a bowl of noodles in broth, baby bok choy floating on top.
Thing is, Danny makes me forget about missing Mom (don’t tell my mom), because eating his food reminds me that right here and now, this is my home. Imagine finally eating a proper char-siu, charred along the edges and sweet without the slightest film of sugar, plus the grassy richness that comes only from consciously fed livestock. For real, all of the dishes on his well-tested, only eleven-point menu are made with local produce and meats. And the classic Chinese variations he makes with them are so good… well. I will confess. I almost shed a tear.
Let me break it down. I’ve seen the dishes at MCF in Chongqing, Wuhan, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Taipei, on the tables of relatives, and at nearly every hole-in-the-wall Chinese food mainstay between Houston and San Francisco. But when I took my first sip of Tingly Lamb Noodle Soup and my first bite of Salt Cod Fried Rice, I didn’t long for those places. I just thought, “This is what every bowl of lamb soup should be.”
Try those two dishes and the Slow Cooked Char Siu Pork Belly. Also, if you have ever been to Sichuan, China, and, like me, dream of Sichuan peppercorn, many of Danny’s spicy dishes use this aromatic liberally, and to pitch-perfect effect.
However, what I really love about MCF, besides eating it, is that making traditionally inspired (as opposed to fusion) Chinese food with local ingredients really addresses the huge problem -- yes, the problem -- of Chinese food in America. As I swallowed bite after bite, I began to realize, quite viscerally, that I had at some point started to write-off Chinese food in starkly ethnic terms. Certain thoughts had become subconscious, such as, “Oh, real Chinese food has to be a little greasy, and it might not be very fresh.” Even I, desperate proponent of Chinese fare in America, believed authenticity probably meant low-quality.
But Danny is oh so conscious of this perception. And he he hopes that MCF will challenge these conceptions. “Chinese food is seen as a lesser cuisine,” he said, “But it isn’t.”
So if racism can be combated with a meal, Danny is doing it.
MCF’s updated menu can be found here. They also deliver.