Chef Danny Bowien pays homage to the San Francisco restaurants that influenced Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina.
When Danny talks about his San Francisco food memories, the first thing that comes to mind is a ritual he shared with his wife over the legendary roast chicken at Zuni Cafe. “On my one day off of work, I would wait at the corner seat at the bar. I’d order a bottle of rose, some oysters and the chicken so that it would be ready just as she was getting out of school to come meet me,” recalls Danny. “You can’t help but want to eat at that restaurant. The fog rolls in at night and pushes the smell of the wood oven all the way up the hill. It’s so good; so amazing.”
It’s a powerful sensory memory and a testament to how deeply the food culture of San Francisco can embed in the mind of a chef. When Danny moved to New York in 2012, he brought so much of the city along with him; to this day there are traces of his experiences on the West Coast all over the menus at Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina in Manhattan. Here, the chef reveals a few of them.
Swan Oyster Depot
Danny stuck a keg in the front room of Mission Chinese Food when it first opened in New York, offering free beer to help guests pass the time during what could often be an hours-long wait. The idea, he says, came from the century-old Swan Oyster Depot, where free Anchor Steams would take the edge off during the morning rush. “I used to sit at the counter and just go for it. I am a sucker for a trashy crab louie salad—shredded iceberg lettuce, thousand island dressing, fresh picked Dungeness crab. I’d get that or clam cocktail and the Sicilian-style sashimi with chopped onions.” Danny says its best to visit Swan in the morning or at closing time, when it is less touristy and the staff is in good spirits. “It’s just the best to observe how a great restaurant ends its day on such a positive note. So inspiring,” he says.
Swan Oyster Depot: 1517 Polk St, San Francisco; 415-673-2757; sfswanoysterdepot.com
House of Prime Rib
Danny has spent many a birthday at this Nob Hill classic, where old-world, theatrical service is alive and well, and the only decision you have to make is your portion size. “I usually get the king’s cut; if you eat all of it they give you a second helping,” says Danny, who wheels a prime rib cart through the dining room at MCF in New York as an hat tip to the institution’s table side carving tradition. Sides include baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and salads with a high production value—they’re tossed to order in the dining room in a metal bowl that spins over a bed of ice. “House of Prime Rib is just so good and so special that you can really just check out and enjoy it. You don’t have to over-analyze everything about the experience,” he says.
House of Prime Rib: 1906 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco; 415-885-4605; houseofprimerib.net
Spices II: Szechuan Trenz
This Taiwanese and Szechuan restaurant is the first place Danny ever encountered the málà heat of Szechuan peppercorns. “I was this grumpy line cook and thought I knew everything about everything, but I had never had Szechuan food. I didn't even know what was making my mouth numb and tingly,” he says. Danny’s friend Brandon Jew was the first to introduce him to Spices, and the place made a powerful impression. “That was the catalyst for Mission Chinese. Our thrice-cooked bacon, Chonqing chicken wings and other dishes we still serve were inspired by things I tasted there,” he says.
Spices II: Szechuan Trenz: 291 6th Ave, San Francisco; 415-752-8885; spicessf.com