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The Evolution of a Restaurant: Mission Chinese Food

Here's how a San Francisco couple powered by imagination and naïveté reconceived the restaurant experience, with Mission Chinese Food, then chronicled their success in a new cookbook, Mission Street Food.

A few years ago, my husband and I accidentally opened a restaurant.

We weren't chefs—I was a graduate student and my husband, Anthony Myint, was a line cook—but we thought it would be fun to sublet a taco cart and sell "PB&Js," sandwiches stuffed with pork belly and jicama. We set up shop at 21st and Mission in San Francisco and called ourselves Mission Street Food.

To our surprise, we sold out every week, and after a month of unexpectedly successful outings, we gave the whole production a makeover by moving our operation into a dingy Chinese joint on Mission Street. Lung Shan Restaurant continued to sell takeout chow mein, while each Thursday and Saturday, we served dishes like duck-confit nachos and foie gras sundaes to customers seated in the dining room, decorated with large-format posters of Chinese landscapes and Communist leaders on horseback.

The Original Location.
The original location. © Alanna Hale

Soon, we revamped our business again by inviting local chefs and line cooks to collaborate with us on entirely new menus. The guest chefs would choose the night's theme, and we'd follow them—from Indonesian to French, from Vegetarian to Whole Hog, from Tailgating to Escoffier, and from Italian Sushi to Mexiterranean. If we didn't have a guest chef, we'd make up our own theme, like 2010: Seafood Odyssey. But we wanted to do more than wrap asparagus tempura in lardo; we decided to donate our profits to charity, usually local food pantries and soup kitchens.

Lung Shan used to serve just a few dine-in customers a day. But when we were in the kitchen, crowds would line up along Mission Street, wait for hours, and fill every seat, often sharing tables with strangers. Somehow, we had stumbled into community building.

Over time, Anthony and I grew into our roles as chef and manager, but we never exactly learned to be normal restaurateurs. We tend to disregard things like food cost and focus on fun stuff, like crowd-sourcing the funds for a 60-foot dragon chandelier to celebrate our latest reincarnation, as a Chinese-restaurant-within-a-Chinese-restaurant that serves Oklahoma-style barbecue and refined Szechuan cuisine.

Mission Street Food, as it was, no longer exists: While we still work out of the Lung Shan space, we've changed our name to Mission Chinese Food. Our friend Danny Bowien is now the full-time chef, and Anthony and I have promoted ourselves to Executive Busboy and Executive Busybody, respectively.

Join the Mission.
Courtesy of McSweeney's

In July, the San Francisco publisher McSweeney's is releasing a book about our restaurant. Like Mission Street Food itself, the eponymous book is anything but traditional. It incorporates essays, satire, detailed visual recipes and a comic book. Also like the restaurant, the book will benefit charity: For each book preordered through our publisher's website (store.mcsweeneys.net), $10 will be donated to Slow Food USA.

The recipes here reflect our book and our experience as improvisational cooks. Deciding to completely redesign our menus twice a week taught us how delicious inauthenticity can be, and gave us the cross-cultural hubris to combine rice noodles, meatballs soaked with Asian fish sauce, Thai basil, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella and call it a Vietnamese Caprese. Our Chamomile Toast Crunch, thick pieces of buttery toast coated with sugar, caramelized with a blowtorch and served over a pool of chamomile-infused milk, illustrates our signature move, which is to elevate a homey dish with a highbrow technique or two. Ultimately, Mission Street Food was like that piece of toast: a naive combination of comfort food and haute cuisine that was more successful than we ever intended it to be.

Figure 1. Porkonomics

Where We Spent Our Money

Mission Street Food Porkonomics

Figure 2: Key Stats

Number of Reincarnations Thus Far: 3

Full-Time Staff Members: 2

Seats: 60

Number of Guest-Chef Appearances: 70

Number Of Different Menus: 139

Startup Costs: $419

PB&Js Served: 2,500

Twitter Followers: 7,422

Total raised for charity: $35,000

Join the Mission

MSF will donate $10 to Slow Food USA for every book preordered through store.mcsweeneys.net and $1 for every book sold elsewhere.

More Inspiring Food Philanthropy Ideas:

Published July 2011
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