per·fect: [pur-fikt; per-fekt]
I looked up the word perfect in the dictionary and definition number three went like this: Exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose. And that is exactly the kind of culinary experience I had the other night in San Francisco.
It all started with a text from my friend Debbie in the late afternoon. I was at work. She was barreling up the 101 with her two boys for her annual trip to Northern California. She visits the Bay Area just about every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s usually a combo trip – a little Oakland and Berkeley, a night or two at our house, a dinner, a trip to Cole Coffee, her favorite, a stop at Bake Sale Betty’s, maybe a stroll through Berkeley Bowl– and then we pack them off to the city. But this trip they lost time on the road, with a blow out. They were just barely going to make their hotel reservations in San Francisco so we decided to meet them there.
Her boys are twenty-something now. Theo, or “THE O” as we used to call him, goes to NYU and Chris, his older brother, lives in Spanish Harlem. They’re hipsters, I would say. So I started looking around for something hipster-like in the Mission where we could meet for dinner. I asked around the newsroom, got some suggestions, but then Debbie called and told me to meet her at Mission Chinese Food on Mission at 18th. I had never heard it.
As I was headed home I got another call. “We’re in line. It’s raining. The wait is over an hour, look for a big yellow awning. It does not say Mission Chinese on it. It says something else. Can’t wait to see you!” That was my first clue. Debbie does not like to stand in line or wait for anything, but there she was on the other end of the phone – downright chipper about her over an hour wait – in the rain. This was shaping up to be a food adventure, I could feel it. I picked up my husband, son and daughter. We zipped into the city. I looked up Mission Chinese Food on the way. I learned about how the Chef, Danny Bowien, borrowed space from the restaurant Lung Shan to open his restaurant. I learned that it was such a hit here he took it to New York where it’s an even bigger hit. I learned about Thrice Cooked Bacon and Kung Pao Pastrami. Pastrami? Really? Why hadn’t I ever heard of this place? Jim dropped us off at the yellow awning. There was Debbie, still chipper, with her boys. My daughter Katie and Theo were instantly huddled in conversation… it seems they’ve never lost touch… the wonders of Facebook. Chris had brought two friends. It turns out he was the reason we were at Mission Chinese. He told me he had met the chef at a food demo at his job in NYC.
I peered into the restaurant. It was basic Chinese decor. Apparently, when it first opened you could order traditional Chinese from Lung Shan’s menu and wild Chinese from the Mission Chinese menu – right in the same restaurant. But when we sat down we were only handed one menu. Chef Bowien must have muscled the other guy out along the way. We ordered drinks. The price was refreshing. One of the beer selections was only three dollars, the other was four. Chris, Debbie and I ordered. Then the food came. It was one incredible taste sensation after another. Almost every dish was ridiculous.
We had this. Those are dry, dusted chicken wings buried under those peppers.
And we had this. Unbelievable. Cooking bacon thrice seems to be a successful technique. But then – there are these little rice cakes in the dish that I can’t even describe.
These beans will make you cry.
And there were other things, like this, which I can’t name.
But the star of the night had to be this Kung Pao!
And here we all are – so happy.
A perfect evening for a few hipsters – and some not so hip – tripping out in San Francisco. Sometimes, it takes visitors from out of town to show you what’s going on around you. Thank you Chris, Theo and Debbie.
So there you have it. My latest rave. I hope you enjoy this restaurant in 2013. And for my New York readers – both of you – the Mission Chinese in New York was just named the year’s top five. You should check it out. Anyway, I’m definitely going back to the San Francisco restaurant. Maybe I’ll see you here. Happy New Year!
P.S. I was sitting there in Mission Chinese Food after dinner…thinking about dessert. I am not geographically gifted but I thought that we must be close to one of my favorites – Bi-Rite Creamery. I had discovered it –crazily, at Market Hall in Oakland one day. I was walking out of the pasta shop through the coffee shop. Along the way someone handed me a sample which I accepted almost without stopping. I got to the sidewalk outside and tasted it. I could’t believe what was happening. I said to myself, “Is this Salted Carmel Ice Cream?” This tastes like the Salted Caramel Pudding that I love at Flora. I turned around and went back inside and found — sitting right there behind the sample handler and a mound of cookbooks — Anne Walker of Bi-Rite Creamery. I caught her eye and asked her, incredulously, even accusingly, as I held up the evidence… the now empty sample cup, “Is this Salted Caramel Ice Cream?” She smiled lovingly and said “Yes.”
Anyway, back to Mission Chinese. It was still raining. But my phone was telling me that Bi-Rite was a seven minute walk away. I threw it out there. I used words like “best ever” and “salted caramel.” We all charged into the rain toward the ice creamery. We found a lot of happy people there. And the line was shorter.
Everyone discovered their own flavors, like Coconut Chocolate and Coffee Toffee. Me, I went with the Salted Carmel. A perfect ending to a perfect night.