While passing through San Francisco’s Mission District the other night and feeling a collective family hunger pang, we made a very fun and very unscheduled pit stop at Mission Chinese Food, a place that’s been on our “places to try” list for a while. A case of seizing serendipity when it finds you: a few open tables inside the restaurant, no one melting down in our car, and my husband’s unbelievable ability to find creative parking spaces. And so it was… dinner out with the family in the company of tattooed strangers at the very civilized hour of 7:30.
Mission Chinese Food attracts the hipster crowd and has been the recipient of too many enthusiastic accolades to count — safe to say say, not the typical kind of dining we usually experience as a family, especially at the potentially volatile dinner hour. Normally, we reserve a healthy skepticism when it comes to food hype, but I will say it’s fun to have the chance to make up your own mind…. and to get a kid’s fresh perspective. At 3, Luca could care less about a glowing San Francisco Chronicle review by Michael Bauer (“wins the award for the best food served in the worst surroundings”) or an “Edible Selby” interactive feature in the New York Times Style Magazine. Heck he could care less about the chef’s pedigree or point of reference. It’s pretty much just “yum” or “yuck”.
The menu is a take on Americanized Chinese classics: salt cod fried rice; braised Mongolian beef cheek; Westlake rice porridge with oxtail, dungeoness crab and soft-poached egg. The night we went they were serving up kung pao corned beef and a twist on bacon and eggs (pork belly and tea smoked eggs). We’re definitely going back to try the savory egg custard (they were sold out) and Hainam Chicken Rice (we were too full).
Another part of Mission Street Food’s cult popularity has to be the unconventional formula. It’s embedded inside another restaurant, a major hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant called Lung Shan. Two menus, two kitchens, one space. In fact when you walk to the very dive-y bathroom (only total MacGuyvers should attempt a diaper change in there), you actually pass right through the working kitchen. Prior to its current incarnation, the concept was an on going pop-up restaurant showcasing up and coming chefs and experimental menus, now it’s Mission Chinese Food all the time.
The verdict? I loved the loud 80’s music and super tender beef cheeks and exciting mingle of flavors in the Tiger Salad — not to mention seeing Luca nibble pork belly and duck egg. My husband gives two enthusiastic thumbs up to spicy corned beef on a Chinese menu and Luca says super cool to the big dragon hanging from the ceiling and kudos on the plain white rice (a three year old through and through). The bambino slept through it all which is probably the best review a not-quite-4-month old can give.
So we vote: Tasty all in all, if a tad on the greasy side and worth the hype if you don’t have to wait too long and the parking gods favor you. While a lot of the dishes are seriously spicy and may not work well for kids, we loved that every dish was its own little food adventure. We also loved that it’s a cheap and approachable way to experience some of the most “now” food trends, and to challenge yourself re-imagine dishes you’ve probably eaten many, many times before. The flavors are still familiar enough that you can probably convince your kids to dig in, too.