In the beginning, Bowien and Myint worked as a team, deconstructing their favorite restaurant Chinese food and applying their (mostly Western) kitchen experience to making what they considered better versions. Ma po tofu, a Sichuan dish usually consisting of tofu in a thickish sauce of ground pork, bean paste, chile oil, MSG, and cornstarch, became a two-day, slow-cooked Bolognese sauce of ground Kurabuto pork shoulder marinated in Shaoxing wine and black vinegar, seasoned with lots and lots of Sichuan peppercorns (our adapted version doesn't take as long). Bowien got the idea from a wild boar ragout he made at Farina, and found that braising coaxed the flavor out without the need for MSG. The dish is hot and numbing, salty, savory, piquant: a blitz of spicy richness that's strangely addictive, and can be intestinally unkind.
Another dish, Explosive Chicken Wings, was inspired by a Chinatown Sichuan joint called Z & Y. Its battered and deep-fried wings are buried in a thick heap of dried Sichuan peppers you're not supposed to eat. Mission Chinese Food's version is delicate and crispy—better than Z & Y's—thanks to a trick learned from a friend whose mother had worked at the original Buffalo chicken wings restaurant in Buffalo, New York: Bowien fries the meat once, then freezes it, then fries it again. The spice mix is not for amateurs.
"I began to feel like I'd just sucked on a vibrator," wrote SF Weekly food critic Jonathan Kauffman of the wings in an orgasmic review of Mission Chinese Food.
Myint stopped cooking, in part to focus on opening a high-end restaurant, Commonwealth, next door. Bowien kept on experimenting. He gamely tackled naturally fermented cucumber and long bean pickles, homemade XO sauce—a traditional ocean-briny condiment of rehydrated dried shrimp and scallops—and dumplings made to order.
A restless, frequently shifting menu means some duds, of course. The Chinito, a cylindrical Chinese doughnut wrapped in a big noodle and filled with duck and vegetables, was an instant hit with diners. But the doughnut, purchased in the mornings in Chinatown, became too stale and greasy to serve in good conscience by dinner. A steamed egg custard with chicken confit was bland. But more often, the criticism of Mission Chinese Food is that its offerings are too hot, the spices too overblown, and the meats too fatty—all of which Bowien can live with.
"You can't order lamb belly or pork belly and expect it not to be fatty," he sighs. "And what do you expect when it says right there 'Explosive' on the menu?"
Two of Bowien's toughest customers turned out to be Lung Shan's owners, Sue and Liang Zhou. First-generation Chinese and longtime restaurant owners, they couldn't understand why Bowien and Myint ordered expensive meat, like Benton's bacon, when much cheaper meat could be found. In addition to helping with the restaurant, the Zhous pay all of Mission Chinese Food's supply invoices, and are technically the bosses of Myint and Bowien. A portion of the money made is donated to charity: the restaurant has raised $12,000 for the SF Food Bank since July. The Zhous share the rest of the profits with Bowien and Myint.
"They'd be screaming at me in Chinese," says Bowien, who only speaks English. Myint, whose Chinese-Burmese mother and grandmother taught him basic Cantonese, would assure the Zhous that they'd make it all back and more. "Trust us," he would tell them. "You remember what we did with Mission Street Food? We'll do it again."
IN IT FOR THE LONG-ISH HAUL, MAYBE
Myint was right about it being a success, and, for now, there are no more scenes. Although the Zhous don't eat the Americanized dishes they serve to their customers (kung pao chicken, hot and sour soup, etc.), they've spent their entire careers making them in the belief that that's what people want. The fact that people apparently like Bowien's food more than theirs doesn't seem to bother them. "Some people like McDonald's, some people like Burger King," reasons Liang Zhou, with Myint translating. "Only it's funny, because now Burger King and McDonald's are under one roof."
And a small roof it is. The kitchen—two small, adjoining rooms, one housing the wok station and range, the other the salad prep, rice cooker, and deep-fryer—is crowded and hot. The Zhous hired two Chinese immigrants to help Bowien cook, and the cooks share the space with Bowien's longtime cooking buddy Jesse Koide (who recently signed on), Bowien, and the cook dedicated to making Lung Shan's infrequent orders. The smell of scallion is thick, and everybody has a nagging little cough from chile oil suspended in the air.
One Thursday evening the dining room is full, and to-go orders are coming in at a steady clip. Lung Shan's one cook is relaxed, as he gets about one order every 45 minutes or so. Meanwhile, Koide's working the big wok station, dressed like a pirate in a striped tank top and tiger-print headband. He snaps at Bowien during an exchange over some beef and broccoli. "Just take it easy," says Bowien, not unkindly. "Sorry, I got scattered there," Koide says. "The wok stuff is so fast and easy to fuck up!" Most of his career has been spent sweating shallots, deglazing pans, slowly building sauces.
There's sweat collecting on the tip of his nose, but he doesn't wipe it away or even seem to notice. Or perhaps he's learned the hard way that if you work at Mission Chinese Food, you must never touch your face, because of chile hands.
"I came to work here because I got burned out on the hierarchy," he says. "The clocking in, and not getting paid for overtime, and not even getting a thank you." At Mission Chinese he works long days, but it's different. "You have to pull that personal 'oomph' out. It's much more rewarding." And if it's dead at 5, you can just wander out, grab a doughnut, some coffee. Not have to answer to anyone.
Bowien's wife, Youngmi, and Myint's wife, Karen, joke that they're "restaurant widows." Even on their husbands' supposed days off, the men can usually be found at Lung Shan. There are just too many ideas for Mission Chinese Food. Like the Bruce Lee jumpsuits they ordered for the delivery drivers, who refuse to wear them (but Bowien and Myint are still holding out hope). The brand-new Chinese dragon arrived, and they had to mount that on the ceiling. They're still trying to figure out what to do with the sous-vide set-up—maybe sell sous-vide-cooked meat that people can take home and turn into something? They're toying with the idea of reviving the Grey Album, a dangerous cocktail they served at Mission Street Food of Boddingtons and Olde English malt, named after a Danger Mouse mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album.
That's all near-term stuff. Future plans are hazier. Considering that he operates, as Myint approvingly says, "on his whims," Bowien can't predict where Mission Chinese Food will end up. Rolling out dumplings inside the plywood and plexiglass booth he and Myint built in the front of the restaurant, he says, somewhat unbelievably, that he hopes the owners of Lung Shan will continue the Mission Chinese Food menu even if he and his friends jump ship.
"I'm just a stupid young guy, and my main objective is—not making money, but doing something that makes me happy," says Bowien. He notes that Chinese food seems like a trend on the rise: He's heard of two new Chinese restaurants slated to open in San Francisco with reputable chefs in charge. "We don't want to be sucked into the bubble of a trend. No kimchee tacos, no bao buns. As long as we can keep it new, good, stay out ahead …."
He looks up matter-of-factly from the dumpling station and pats flour off his hands.
"I give it at least six months."