Where People Gather for Unpretentious Food
UPDATE 06/15/2010: Mission served up its last dinner in June 2010 and will reopen serving up Chinese food and also focused on another restaurant called Commonwealth.
2234 Mission St. (between 18th and 19th Sts.), San Francisco
Thursday, 6 p.m. to midnight
No reservations, cash only
Underground dining has been around for years, and it usually involves a chef with a big dream but humble beginnings. Dinner is usually at someone’s home or a moving destination, and word typically gets around by people in the know.
With today’s environment of Twitter, Facebook and food blogs (ahem), it’s hard to keep an underground dining movement a secret, which explains the crowds every Thursday night outside the Lung Shan Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District.
On every other day of the week, Lung Shan is your typical no-frills Chinese restaurant where people come more for the take out rather than dining in the aging restaurant with the walls plastered with Chinese watercolor paintings. But on Thursday nights, throw up some Christmas lighting and dim down the lights—way down—and Lung Shan is transformed into Mission Street Food.
Mission Street Food is the brainchild of Anthony Myint, who until recently was a line cook at the popular Bar Tartine restaurant just a few blocks away. Last October, Myint wanted to make good food at accessible prices, so on his days off he rented a taco truck and parked it at 21st and Mission Streets. Word spread and the lines became so long some nights they would block the sidewalk.
So in November Myint struck a deal with Lung Shan to takeover the kitchen on their slowest night of the week and serve his popular food, such as a pork belly and jicama flatbread. His loyal fans from the truck days followed him to Lung Shan, and so did their friends, and friends of those friends, so that now Myint regularly packs Mission Street Food to the point that he’s considering adding a second night.
Mission Street Food works under the philosophy of low overhead so that prices of items on the menu can stay low as well. And now Myint has taken Mission Street Food to another level by inviting weekly guest chefs and donating proceeds (after costs) to charity. It really has turned into a mission for good food.
This past Thursday, I checked out Mission Street Food for the first time with my food blogging compatriot Foodhoe. Mission Street Food starts serving at 6 p.m., but because of its popularity, the dining room fills up within minutes. So Foodhoe and I decided to get there early to make sure we had a spot near the front of the line.
When I arrived at 5:15 p.m., two other die-hard foodies had already started a line. And that’s one of the nice things about Mission Street Food—it attracts real food lovers. Throughout the evening, people passionate about food came to the restaurant and patiently waited knowing that they’d be in for a treat. (We actually shared a table with two other guys because the layout doesn’t have room for two-top tables, and I listened in on one guy vividly describing the food as he ate it.)
By 5:45 p.m., the line stretched about half a block and people driving by kept asking us about the line (thinking that Lung Shan must serve some pretty damn good Chinese food).
At 6 p.m., we were seated at our table and ready to order. Myint has always run a very casual operation, and that translates to a volunteer wait staff of friends and family. As the room fills up with eager eaters, a wait list begins for the crowd waiting outside.
On the night we visited, the guest chef was Leif Hedendal, formerly of Greens Restaurant and several of his own underground dining experiments. The proceeds of the evening would go to a group calling itself Food Not Bombs. (Hedendal will also be cooking for a Feb. 7 benefit at the Million Fishes Art Collective for the documentary “In Search of Good Food.”)
As a former chef at Greens, Hedendal’s menu at Mission Street Food was all vegetarian, including a few vegan selections.
Foodhoe and I got a bowl of Castelvetrano Olives with Fennel ($3.50) to munch on as we looked over the rest of the menu. Nothing was over $10, but keep in mind that the serving sizes are pretty small, almost like tapas or small plates. So Foodhoe and I got a few orders to share.
First up was a Slow-Cooked Egg over Mashed Potatoes with Nettles and Fresh Herbs ($8). The huge egg looked like a white globe sitting over the creamy mashed potatoes. The only color came from the vibrant green speckles of minced nettle and the egg yolk after we broke through the soft whites. The entire dish was warm and comforting, with a balanced hand in seasoning, simple yet elevating.
Next came the King Trumpet Mushroom, Triple-Fried Potatoes, Garlic Confit, Charred Scallion Sour Cream on Homemade Flatbread ($6). This really looked perfect as an individual-sized serving of flatbread, which was expertly crisp. It was the perfect vehicle to carry the bits of mushrooms, potato cubes, garlic and sour cream.
Then came the Roasted Cauliflower ($6), a vegan dish that was both colorful with the tahini powder and intriguing because of the tiny globes of Recchiuti 85%-chocolate. That’s right, chocolate in a savory dish! The warm chocolate somehow blended nicely with the rest of the ingredients, mostly because the cauliflower was cooked so tenderly that the soft sensation of the chocolate marched in time with the tender cauliflower in your mouth.
Our final dish was the Bucatini e Cavolo Nero ($9). Ours were served in a Chinese soup noodle bowl, which gave the bucatini an almost udon-like appearance. (Our dining partners next to us also ordered the bucatini and theirs came out on a flat oval plate, making it look more Italian in my mind.)
The bucatini was covered with rich dark greens, which I assumed was the cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) that were wilted, and speckled with fried sage leaves, toasted almonds, bits of capers, olives and chilies, all held together in a light brown butter sauce. I enjoyed the sharp flavoring of the kale with the rest of the ingredients.
Despite the dishes being small, Foodhoe and I felt satisfied. I ventured a guess that it was because the kitchen was so busy that the food came out with a bit of time between each course, giving our stomachs more time to properly digest what we were eating.
Still, we saved room for dessert. Since there’s no pastry chef per se, I’ve noticed recently that Mission Street Food has been tapping Humphry Solcombe, the hot new ice creamery that opened last month on the edge of the Mission. (Don’t worry, I’ll be blogging about that new place soon.)
We ordered the Maple Walnut Ice Cream with Rosemary Shortbread cookies ($5.50) and a scoop of the Oolong Ice Cream ($3.25). The ice cream was definitely rich and creamy—the oolong had a distinct, deep flavor of tea while the maple walnut wasn’t that distinctive but was served with a sprinkling of Murray River salt on top. Since I’m a fan of salt, I enjoyed the extra dimension of flavor in this sweet dish. The ice cream was also served on top of thinly sliced pears.
As we got up and paid, I couldn’t help but feel like we were part of some grassroots movement to bring the focus back on good food. Stripped away are the fancy décor, wine sommeliers, cloth napkins and pretentious hostesses and instead all that’s left is what comes out of the kitchen. For Myint’s dream of making good food accessible, I say it’s mission accomplished.
Note: I’m not doing my usual rating system for this review since Mission Street Food has changing chefs and it’s really not your typical restaurant. (P.S. The photo above is not of Myint in the kitchen but is a sous chef prepping dessert in the prep area.)
Tips on dining at Mission Street Food:
- Check the blog to see who the guest chef will be and get a preview of the planned menu. Myint usually posts the information on Tuesday for that week’s dinner.
- Remember to bring cash (they did serve beer when we were there and there’s a $5 corkage fee)
- Pay by going up to the register with your slip from the waitress. You can leave your tips in the tip jar at the register, not the table.
- Most tables are for parties of four. Plan to share a table if you’re a party of two, so if you make friends with people in line, sit with them.
- Be patient. Like I said earlier, many of the wait staff is friends and they can be overwhelmed by the crowd. So be pleasant when asking for eating utensils or extra plates because they’re doing their best to keep up with the popularity of the place.