Chinese Takeout Artist

Danny Bowien
On an October evening in San Francisco, Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant appeared entirely unwelcoming. Like the pawnshops and 99-cent stores on this dingy stretch of Mission Street, security bars covered its windows. Rank fumes wafted from a busted sewage line out in front. But inside, surrounded by Christmas lights, cheap carpeting, and cheesy posters of galloping horses, every table was filled. The music was pumping, and the chef was hustling. Chef Danny Bowien, a baby-faced 28-year-old Korean American with long, bleached, orange-ish hair under a baseball hat and big ’80s-style glasses, ferried plates back and forth between the kitchen and the front of the house, where he refilled plastic water glasses. He kept his eye on the door, because there was a rumor going around that the band Arcade Fire was going to drop by for dinner.

They never showed, but if they had, it wouldn't have been to eat at Lung Shan. Bowien actually runs another Chinese restaurant within Lung Shan with his partner, Anthony Myint. Though the name's not on the sign, it's called Mission Chinese Food, and you can order off either menu. Myint and Bowien share a kitchen, waitstaff, and delivery drivers, as well as the profits, with the owners of Lung Shan. But while the Chinese-run restaurant's food is of the bland, Americanized, sweet-and-sour-pork variety, Mission Chinese Food's menu reaches deeper into a broad Chinese-food lexicon, interpreting dishes like ma po tofu and sizzling cumin lamb as spicy, rich, full-frontal assaults. Most nights, the restaurant is packed with walk-ins and deluged with delivery orders.

"Eating at Mission Chinese Food is like being at a powwow for an incipient food revolution," says Scott Hocker, the San Francisco editor of Tasting Table. But it's not clear what this revolution is all about. It's certainly not about local-sustainable: Although Bowien uses the best meat and produce he can find, he keeps that fact from diners.

"Anyone can buy stuff from fancy farms. Just make good food and leave some mystery to it," Bowien says.

Maybe it's about challenging diners' notion of what to expect. Since opening in July, Bowien et al. have changed the menu several times, adding made-to-order dumplings and a sous-vide operation built from an old aquarium.

Or maybe the revolution is just about doing whatever the hell they want.

"There's a beauty to it," says Chris Kronner, executive chef at San Francisco's Bar Tartine and a longtime friend of Bowien's. "You go in there, and it's a shithole, and they're making really great food, and playing really loud music, and nobody's telling them not to."

STEPPING OFF THE TREADMILL
Bowien remembers the moment he realized he had to bail on the fine-dining scene. He was 26 years old, and had spent the past seven years working his way up from culinary school (he dropped out) to cooking gigs at well-regarded restaurants in both New York and San Francisco, sometimes four of them at one time.

"He's a very, very, very, very hard worker," says Bar Tartine's Kronner.

Bowien had landed the chef de cuisine position at Farina, a chic, northern Italian date spot in San Francisco's Mission District. While working there, his boss unexpectedly flew him to Genoa and basically tricked him into entering the Pesto World Championship (Bowien thought he was just tagging along to assist). Though he appeared to be the only non-Italian in the competition, and a Korean American with acid-washed jeans and a Lynyrd Skynyrd haircut to boot, Bowien upstaged everybody and won first place.