Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant
The last time we were in San Francisco, we searched out blog-star restaurant Mission Chinese Food and were surprised to find it housed in Lung Shan Restaurant, a decidedly unglamorous Chinese take-out and delivery hole-in-the-wall with a dingy yellow awning. Inside, it looked like not much had changed from the restaurant’s previous incarnation except the addition of some kitsch art and a huge paper dragon traversing the ceiling. This place was a conundrum: older Chinese women were preparing food in the back and a young, hipster waiter took our order from a Chinese menu with a contemporary twist, while Biggie and Tupac played in the background. Later that day in a bookstore we were thrilled to find Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant, a book which chronicles the convoluted route through which this unlikely restaurant was born.
Mission Street Food is part cookbook and part memoir of a couple, Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, and their madcap plan to start a restaurant-within-a-restaurant with limited means but lots of moxy. The Executive Summary portion of their implausible and sassy business plan provides the general attitude towards which they approached their project: “The goal of Mission Street Food (hereafter The Restaurant) is to offer unpredictable eating experiences that make no profit, lose no money, and require a substantial amount of work. The Restaurant will serve a different menu every night, making it possible to achieve any economies of scale or regular routines, resulting in food waste and short tempers.” Their story is an endearing and uniquely American one: Anthony, a line cook at Bar Tartine, and Karen, who was completing her doctorate in English literature, sublet a taco truck on the regular owner’s night off, and set up shop on Mission Street selling sandwiches. It was so popular (coinciding with what the authors describe as the ‘sportification of food’ through social media, food blogs, and the food network) that they sold out again and again, and looked for a bigger location to house their makeshift project. They eventually found a home at Lung Shan, working with a variety of guest chefs, which as anyone familiar with a kitchen knows is a recipe for uncertainty and unpredictability. Miraculously, Anthony and Karen were able to smooth out the many bumps and Mission Street Food tells their story through a first person dialogue between them. Their voices are witty, entertaining and earnest, describing their successes along with their failures.
Also a cookbook, Mission Street Food offers an eclectic compendium of recipes – including Peking duck, brown-butter financier, and brownies – with step-by-step images and instructions, and approximate costs to prepare the dishes described. Anthony doesn’t advocate shortcuts: a grid of images shows how to portion steaks from a ribeye, and he encourages grinding meat yourself to make burgers. He also offers advice on useful kitchen equipment and stocking a pantry for quick dinner fixes, probably compiled from many nights of improvisation running a restaurant based on menus which lasted just one night.
Mission Street Food eventually morphed into Mission Chinese Food and when we were last in San Francisco, we sampled a range of items from their menu including chilled buckwheat noodles with Asian pear, spicy fried chicken (both of which are no longer on their menu) and Hainam chicken rice which is dressed in shaoxing wine and chicken fat and tossed with cilantro and peanuts. While none of these dishes were mind-blowing, they were all interesting and flavourful and their menu is attractive enough to warrant a second try. We might be more willing to forgive any flaws because of their charitable inclinations: a portion of the proceeds from their book are donated to Slow Food USA, just as the restaurant donates $0.75 from each entrée to the San Francisco Food bank – since July 2010 Mission Street Chinese has raised $105,877. Pretty great for what Karen initially assumed was one of Anthony’s “idiosyncratic larks.”