For chef Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina, the global character of San Francisco is at the heart of his success.
Danny Bowien sees San Francisco in a bicycle ride. To travel between points in this city of slopes, you could choose to take the “wiggle”—a crooked pathway that cuts through the Lower Haight, designed to help bikers avoid steep climbs. Or you could take a turn up a breakneck incline, guzzle some water and peddle like the dickens. In San Francisco, says Danny, it’s a flexible metaphor. “For better or worse, there is less pressure to over-perform here, so you really have to push yourself to grow,” he says. “There are ways to get around and coast, but if you want to challenge yourself, you can take those really big hills.” Considering what it took to turn a pop-up restaurant hidden inside a Cantonese dive into the coast-spanning phenomenon that became Mission Chinese Food, it’s fair to assume the chef favors an uphill route.
Which isn’t to say it’s been a straight line to the summit. To understand how Danny became renowned for multicultural inventions like Kung Pao pastrami, or how he got away with a restaurant that, for a time, served Vietnamese soups for breakfast and Mexican food the rest of the day, it helps to know where he comes from. Danny was born in Seoul and grew up in Oklahoma City, the adopted son of a midwestern couple who raised their boy on a classic American diet of ground beef. When he made his way to San Francisco for culinary school, he engaged with a world of international flavors that was entirely new to him. He explored the pho and banh mi sold at the Vietnamese restaurants of the Tenderloin. He tasted his ancestral Korean food for the first time. He ate Mexican tacos. He worked at a Japanese sushi bar and a Neapolitan restaurant. San Francisco’s global range embedded in the young cook’s mind; the city was a deep and wide well of inspiration and opportunity. When a friend introduced him to the mouth-numbing wonders of Szechuan cuisine at restaurants like R&G Lounge and Spices II, it was the seed of a new obsession.
Danny had been following a traditional line cook trajectory when he hooked up with Anthony Myint, who had expanded the reach of his cultish food truck with a pop-up inside Lung Shan, a Chinese restaurant in the Mission. Together they turned the pop-up into Mission Chinese Food. At the time Danny had never traveled to China, and his view of the cuisine was informed by the version of it presented by immigrant cooks who had settled in San Francisco. But he embraced those degrees of separation, even doubled down on them. If immigrant cooks had to adapt their cuisine to the ingredients available in San Francisco, then Danny took it a step further. He weaved the full spectrum of the city’s international traditions into a Szechuan framework at MCF. There was Westlake porridge that split the difference between the congee he might have encountered in Chinatown and the Vietnamese pho he’d survived on in culinary school. He used the skills he’d honed working in an Italian kitchen in the Mission to prepare mapo tofu that felt as rooted in Bologna as it did in provincial China. As a radical exploration of place and self Mission Chinese Food was, from the beginning, very much a product of its progressive city. “I say this repeatedly, but MCF could not have gotten its start anywhere but San Francisco,” says Danny. “This city allows you to be a lot of things, but the main thing it lets you be is yourself.”
Of course, there were hills. After a two-star benediction from legendary Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer in 2011, MCF was impossibly mobbed. The restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept could be a logistical challenge, with Lung Shan and MCF servicing two diametrically different clienteles from the same small kitchen. Danny and Anthony tried to recreate the hidden-in-plain-sight magic with a burger pop-up inside a nearby Vietnamese market and found it to be a struggle. But still the house party atmosphere of Mission Chinese raged on, ever upwards. Satisfied with what he had built in San Francisco, Danny eventually set his sights on New York, opening an outpost of Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side in 2012.
In New York things picked up speed, as they tend to do. He won a Rising Star James Beard Award in 2013, the same year he was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef. He opened a second spot, the Mexican Mission Cantina, and moved MCF from its original Orchard Street location, allowing it to mature into a larger, more ambitious restaurant. But even as Danny began to incorporate inspiration from his new Manhattan home, his menus continued to bear the mark of the city where he got his start. The red sauce he offers at Mission Cantina is his attempt to decode a salsa roja served at SF taco truck El Tonayense. The prime rib carved table side at Mission Chinese is a nod to left coast institution House of Prime Rib. He serves pizza from a wood-burning oven there too—the crust is made with a sourdough starter from SF’s Tartine Bakery, whose owner Chad Robertson also helped perfect the dough.
These days, Danny heads west to cook in the original Mission Chinese Food kitchen about once a month—a deal that might require a contract in New York, but in San Francisco just hinges on a handshake. He has rituals in San Francisco: things he has to eat, people he has to see. “I have an outsider’s insider view of San Francisco now that I ebb and flow between the two cities. But going there really balances me out,” says Danny. “The city is an amazing springboard; it affords you the opportunity to be weird and to create anything you want.”
Maybe you want to test the mettle of your fixie. Maybe you want a coast-spanning career as a celebrated chef. Either way, in San Francisco, the shot is yours to take.
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