It was a fairly quiet week for dining out, though things will start up again this weekend with a few Napa visits (but those reviews wait until next week!).
Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
Quite possibly the most talked about restaurant in San Francisco, Mission Chinese Food perfectly shows where dining is 2012. It’s a pop up, yet also a restaurant. A little over a year ago, Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibovitz (of the pop up Mission Street Food and next door restaurant to Mission Chinese Food, Commonwealth) took over the Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant on Mission St. at 18th, that was not exactly on the radar of area food followers to say the least. They hired Danny Bowien, a chef best known for winning the World Pesto Championship in 2008.
There’s not a lot of pesto on the menu here, but a lot of gusto to Bowien’s Szechuan influenced, far global reaching menu. Bowien now is preparing to open the first off Mission offshoot of the restaurant, in New York. Luckily, the kitchen is hitting on all cyliners without his daily presence. This is Chinese food in inspiration and family style servings. The creations though represent the sheer vibrant diversity of San Francisco.
The cooking, the service, and even the atmosphere (the restrooms are not hideous anymore) have all smoothed out, becoming crisper and more refined since my initial visit last July. Then, the ma po tofu’s spice forced me to drink an entire swimming pool, and the enticing broth, chunks of tender Kurobota pork shoulder, and buttery cubes of tofu made up for the palette dulling spice. Those peppercorns that Szechuan cuisine is famous for numb your taste in a good way if that’s possible to say.
No longer on the menu, Bowien made an excellent Chinese barbeque sampler with hot links and fork tender brisk, a mash up of Fort Worth and Shanghai if I’ve heard of one. Bowien’s silky chilled egg custard is excellent with briny sea urchin and tiny scallops. The addicting Beijing vinegar peanuts and variation on kimchi cucumber pickles are excellent for beginning snacks. The heart of the order comes in the large plates. Sizzling lamb belly is excellent, coated in the Northern Chinese Islamic style with pungent cumin. Shanghai chow mein comes tossed withpork trotters and rock shrimp, while the simple sounding beef brisket noodle soup gets jazzed by a cardamom broth. The only dud is the salt cod fried rice, begging for less grease and more salt cod to liven the proceedings.
The stand out is the thrice cooked bacon tossed in chili oil atop a mound of miniature sweet rice cakes like lilly pads on a pond, tofu skins, and black beans. It’s not exactly your neighborhood take-out Chinese dish. My one wish at Mission Chinese Food would be to cut down the portion size, trim the already shockingly low prices with the portion size, and allow us to sample more of this exciting creations. I can’t imagine how popular the place would with everything tapas style.
It’s a party every night (except Wednesdays, beware!) at Mission Chinese Food. Even the wine and beer lists have slightly improved, with 3-4 options for each, including the terrific 21st Amendment Back In Black IPA, where hops meet stouts.
A year in and expanding to New York, Mission Chinese Food is better than ever and just as popular. Come at 9pm on a rainy weekday night and then you don’t have to wait!
Barefoot Coffee Roasters, Santa Clara, CA
A terrific espresso is pulled by the baristas at this oasis of quality third wave coffee in a random mini mall in a random area of Silicon Valley. The espresso comes a bit on the sour side like at Four Barrel, with some clove noticable, and an excellent crema. The music is hypnotizing, making everyone feel as zoned out as the baristas can sometimes soon. They do know how to make coffee here, dazed, or not.
La Trappe, San Francisco
A somewhat hidden gem of a Belgian beer bar and restaurant to get your moules frites and Tripel on. Tucked between touristy North Beach and touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, this is one of the city’s premier destinations for top notch European and American craft brews. Bartenders are incredibly knowledgeable as if they make the beers themselves and I can’t think of a much more charming setting than the cozy brick exposed cellar room downstairs. It’s perfect for a date or contemplating the superb Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura Dawn Imperial Sour Stout. Yes, that’s the name of the beer I had.
Joy Restaurant, Foster City
Having been to Taipei, Taiwan last summer, searching far and wide at night markets for the classic stinky tofu, I thought I found some, but clearly there was a missing link in the translation as the tofu was none too stinky. So I finally found time to seek out this traditional Chinese restaurant with a small specialty in Taiwanese specialties, in particular stinky tofu. You can get it fried or steamed in a similar way that Koreans serve soontofu, in a broth of boiling chili oil topped with chunks of pork, onions, and black beans. Joy ferments its own tofu. This is the real stuff, foul to the nose from when it exits the kitchen. The taste is intriguing, but ultimately not as exciting as an aged cheese would be. Then again, this is tofu we’re talking about. You end up feeling bad for the tables next to you and realize your clothes are going straight to the washer.
Interestingly enough, the special dish was an excellent recommendation by the waiter who could barely communicate to me his thoughts. On the menu it’s called “sliced gluten,” as unexciting as wheat germ or “pencil” might look on a menu. Guess again. Cubes of hoisin marinated seitan get tossed with edaname beans and shitake mushrooms for a fantastic starter. Gluten never tasted so good, especially with the stink of the tofu nearby.
Caffe Roma, San Francisco
Even though this North Beach cafe roasts its own beans, the espresso is as watery as I had recently at SFO. Very kind baristas and the back room’s leather banquettes makes you feel like a Beat Generation author. The bum sleeping on a table there made me feel like this is San Francisco.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store
No, not a cigar in sight, nor is this is a store. It’s a charming, North Beach stand by on Columbus, overlooking Washington Square Park. While next door’s Original Joe’s is massive and rowdy, Mario’s is miniscule and organized, with seating mainly at the 10 seat or so bar. It’s a rare local’s joint in this area, despite Frommer’s being in love with it. The espresso sadly is very bland and watery like Caffe Roma, but the atmosphere and tempting looking pizzas from the oven behind the bar, make this more than worthwhile.
We’ll see where next week takes us, have a great weekend!