Mission Chinese Food (San Francisco)

Overall: 4/5

On a recent weekend trip to San Francisco, we took the opportunity to visit the much ballyhooed Mission Chinese Food. Apprehensive of long waits, we took advantage of the online reservation system and booked a table for six at noon on a Saturday.

As we ambled inside, we were greeted with a dim interior that was adorned with an eclectic mix of Chinese-themed paraphernalia, such as paintings of communist generals, or a paper dragon snaking through the ceiling. For good measure, a cutout of Michael Jordan was propped against at a corner of the restaurant.

The place was also empty.

One of the two cheerful waitresses that manned the floor gave us free rein to pick our table. I reflexively told the waitress seating us that we had a reservation, and ended up looking very silly doing so. As it turns out, it was explained to us that the place is actually pretty quiet during the day time. It’s the night-time, when revelers of the night seek to sober up by eating comfort food and sink into drunkenness even further by equal measure, does the place truly come alive.

Yeah, yeah, let’s get to the good stuff you say – I agree,

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Tea-Smoked Eel – Fresh rice noodle, chinese celery, salted plum hoisin, braised pork cognac soy

What I noticed right away was the rice noodle. It was indeed fresh – sticky and chewy. The chinese celery was bright and provided very nice contrast in texture. With each bite, different flavor notes asserted itself moment to moment. The cognac-tinged soy, the salt of the pork, the smoked aroma of the eel. Considering that we were literally the first customers of the day, the advanced execution is to be commended.

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Mongolian Long Beans ($12) – Xinjiang spices, horseradish, chili oil

The beans were well prepared. The wok heat had wilted and scorched the beans to a nice charred and soft texture. The beans were spicy, and perhaps overly salty from all of the spices. I really could not discern the horseradish, perhaps it was overwhelmed by the spices and chili. Also, it was a huge portion, capable of feeding four or five people.

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Chongqing Chicken Wings ($11) – Explosive chili, crispy beef tripe

I had a lot of expectations for the wings, and I was slightly disappointed. The plentiful chili peppers were edible and lived up to the spiciness, but the spiciness was not imparted to the wings. The wings themselves looked to be coated with a five-spice based rub. The skin on the wings were crispy, but the meat inside were a little dry. This may be due to the fact that the wings were not very large. The tripe was deep-fried and were indeed crispy. It still had a slight offal taste to it, but did not do much for the dish either way.

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Ma Po Tofu ($11) – Braised shiitake, aged chili paste, Sichuan peppers, scallions

Another solid dish. Everything here is generally on point. The silky tofu, the fragrant spices and scallions. The Sichuan peppers will start giving you the numbing sensation after a few bites. A couple distracting issues, however. Again, the dish was slightly too salty for my taste. Also, I could not identify the braised shiitake. Nevertheless, there was something very inviting and comforting about this dish. None of the issues I mentioned stopped me from eating most of this thing.

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Forbidden Fried Rice ($13) – Roasted shiitake, fresh asparagus, egg

For the uninitiated, the “forbidden” part of the dish is actually in reference to the rice. Once reserved for Chinese royalty, forbidden (or black) rice is high in antioxidants and other nutrients. On the downside, it’s not as glutinous as regular white rice and has a more granular texture. The dish appeared to be topped with puffed rice. Again, the taste veered a little bit too salty for me. The only ingredient that asserted itself was the asparagus. Cut into one-inch stalks, the asparagus was indeed fresh and gave the dish some crunchy context. As a vehicle for the Ma Po Tofu and the Mongolian Long Beans, it was terrific. On its own, it was good but not great. But at least the rice is good for you.

Overall, it was a very satisfying meal. The place lives up to the hype with well-executed and comfortable dishes. The heavy touch with the salt had me searching for water for the rest of the day, but hey, that’s why the place serves beer.

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Mission Chinese Food (San Francisco)

Bao Down (Vancouver – Gas Town)

Overall: 3.5/5

In the Gastown section of Vancouver is Bao Down. The unassuming storefront is easy to miss, but is located just steps from the Gassy Jack statue. The style of food can be best described as Asian take-out tacos. Instead of the tortillas, the transport vehicle is the bao – a type of steamed bread. At its best, its sweet, sticky, spongy, and dense. Really perfect for fatty meats such as duck or pork belly. Long story short, bao’s been around for a long time, people smarter than me have found creative ways for using bao, and here we are today. So, let’s assess the damage.

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The YVR ($6) – Bao with sesame seared albacore tuna, wasabi mayo, baby pea shoots, avocado, sweet soy and double smoked bacon

This was pretty good. The caveat being that I am a sucker for tuna, so things have to get pretty messed up for me to hate this. The flavors that shone through were the bacon, avocado, and the tuna. In fact, the whole thing kind of tasted like a BLT. On the other hand, the dressings were not very noticeable, while the baby pea shoots added some unobjectionable color and some texture. As a general note, the bao itself was sweet and dense, though I would have prefer it to be a little warmer.

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Japoyaki Poutine (Large $8) – Fries with curry sauce, cheese, jalapeños, seaweed, and sprouts

This is an example of fusion done right. Everything coalesced nicely here. The crunchy fries were worn down with the cheese and curry sauce, the jalapeños added heat, the seaweed added umami. My cholesterol level would be unsightly if this was more convenient to obtain.

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VeVo ($5) – Shitake mushrooms, garlic pea shoots, sprouts, organic red kale, avocado, organic carrot & beet strings, ginger peanut sauce and toasted sesame seeds

This came courtesy of my wife, who does not eat meat. I appreciate places that accommodate people’s diets, but this did not do much for me. The main problem being that baos are just not the ideal vehicle for vegetables. As you bite through the dense bao, what you want is something greasy or crunchy to provide a contrast. This does not happen here. It’s competent, but not something I would go out of my way for.

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Jaws ($5) – Coconut crusted catfish, kimchi tartar, microgreens & cabbage in a Thai vinaigrette.

This was pretty good as well. The catfish was crunchy and slightly flaky, though I couldn’t really discern the coconut from the crust. The tartar was tangy (but couldn’t discern the kimchi element, which might have drowned out by the vinaigrette). As you can see from the picture, the veggies were colorful and fresh.

Finally, it’s hard to tell from the pictures, but the baos are not very large in since, about a size of a fist in most instances. It will take about 2-3 bags to feed an average adult. The pricing is fair, but your bill may easily go north of $20 per person if you are really hungry.

Bao Down (Vancouver – Gas Town)