Any night of the week—except Wednesdays—you can find large groups of people standing outside an ordinary-looking Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Peering through the window, you’d see an over-the-top paper dragon draped from the ceiling. The menu in the window has spice indicators that appear to be butts, yet no one waiting is the least bit concerned. The first bite confirms all the word of mouth buzz surrounding the San Francisco- and now New York-based Mission Chinese Food.
Chef Danny Bowien has taken a unique approach to growing his restaurant and to reinterpreting Chinese food (or what Bowien calls Americanized Oriental Food). As the founder of a critically acclaimed Chinese restaurant who had never really cooked Chinese food and who didn’t come up through the standard restaurant career channels, Bowien provides a great case study in the creative power of the outsider. We chatted with Bowien about the New York opening of Mission Chinese Food and the underlying philosophies that have guided the venture from the start.
MCF first opened in July 2010 and Bowien wasn’t deluding himself about the challenge that lay ahead. San Francisco is a city that takes its Asian cuisine seriously, "almost too seriously in a lot of ways" he notes. Locals were already excited about the Mission Food brand from its previous iterations—famed food truck, burger counter, buzzy pop-up. There was no shortage of outside pressure, yet the opportunity to do something new was irresistible.
"It was difficult, I’m making this food I’ve never made before for people who have eaten this kind of food a lot," Bowien says. "Me not being from China—I’d never even been to China before we opened the restaurant, I’d just eaten at a lot of Chinese restaurants and tried to get to the bottom of the things. But being naive helped prepare me to have your back against the wall all the time."
Bowien was tired of cooking entirely just a few months earlier, drained from the grind and regiment of life at a "regular" restaurant. So a laid-back, no frills approach re-energized him, making the pressure of opening an establishment easier to take. Fast-forward two years, and this lesson stayed with Bowien. The spotlight awaiting MCF was even brighter this summer when the restaurant expanded to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
"When we were trying to open, people were already waiting outside," Bowien remembers. "But being under the microscope so to speak, drove us to become better. A lot of restaurants come out and advertise ‘We serve authentic, traditional this or that.’ We were coming out with an honest approach, saying ‘We don’t know what we’re doing; so if you want to try this, give it a shot.’ Our goals were to rediscover ourselves personally and help other people while doing that."
The idea of community is ingrained in MCF. The restaurant’s original neighborhood is right in the name after all (San Francisco’s Mission District). Bowien actually came on board through local networking. When operating as the Mission Street Food pop-up out of the divey take-out Chinese restaurant that became MCF’s home (Lung Shan), he was among the many San Francisco chefs brought in for guest nights by founder Anthony Myint.
Today, the most obvious connection to the neighborhood greets customers before they ever consider Thrice Cooked Bacon or Kung Pao Pastrami. At the top of every menu, a continually updated dollar figure lists how much has been donated from MCF sales to the local food bank ($0.75 from each entrée is donated).
So when it came to opening the newest location, community again proved a major factor.
"In New York, I was lucky enough to have a lot of people who were excited about us being here and were willing to help us. The community of cooks, restaurateurs, chefs is very tight and obviously we couldn’t have done it without the help," Bowien says. "I think people could see our intentions were different than a lot of other restaurants. We didn’t come out here saying ‘We’re going to take over New York City.’ We wanted to open a restaurant and I’ve never done that before by myself."
MCF NY, in its fifth month, has earned positive reviews from the likes of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and long lines of patient patrons (the inevitable wait for a table is mitigated by free draft beer). The success it’s enjoying led to an inevitable question: Where next? Bowien has already gone on the record about two destinations. The first won’t surprise you, which is precisely why it hasn’t happened yet.
"Brooklyn does make a lot of sense," Bowien notes, adding he called the borough home when he first lived in New York. "But people always expected us to open in Brooklyn and that’s why we did the Lower East Side. We don’t want to follow the trends, if people think we’re going one way we don’t necessarily want to follow what people’s expectations are. We want to keep people on their toes."
So how do you do that? Take one of the country’s hottest restaurants to a place where no one anticipates it, but where the cuisine fills a gap. This dynamic happens to fit Bowien’s hometown: Oklahoma City. The chef still has plenty of friends and family in the area, and he says OKC has a kindness that really resonates with him (and would resonate with the restaurant). But do the tastes fit in a place perceived more for smokers than Szechuan?
"I’m not saying we’re going to go there and everyone is going to love us. But when I was growing up, I didn’t even have Korean food until I was like 19 and moved to San Francisco," Bowien says. "Had it been available, I probably would’ve tried it, though. Now we’re not going to go there and put beef cheeks on the menu—you have to be sensitive to your demographic obviously. But a lot of the food at Mission Chinese is influenced by me growing up there—really awesome smoked meats and barbecue, things like that. We’ll see what happens, though that’s a little ways off."