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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.