For those of you that read this blog regularly, or follow on twitter, you’ll know that Hand To Mouth has a BIG restaurant crush on Mission Chinese Food. So when we saw that the guys behind it had written a sort of cookery book and were having a ‘food and chat’ style book launch, we were all over it like a rash. So much so that we bought tickets #1 and #2.
The book, Mission Street Food, is the brainchild of Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibowitz, who despite their tender years and relative inexperience, have already left a pretty sizeable legacy on San Francisco’s culinary map due to their DIY approach to the restaurant trade. As a couple who are also thinking of opening a food-based business, we were as keen as mustard to hear them speak about their experience, and basically get inspired.
Their story begins in late 2008 when Myint (previously a consultant who re-trained as a chef) was working as a line cook at Bar Tartine, the restaurant arm of SF’s famous bread emporium, and was looking for a more creative outlet in his down time. So he sub-let a Guatemalan taco truck on Thursday evenings and launched Mission Street Food, slinging phenomenal sounding gourmet sandwiches to a hungry and ever growing crowd of San Francisco foodies. Pork belly and jalapeño (PB & J), Pigs trotter and cornichon, 40 clove chicken, fried catfish and kimchi are among some of the sarnies listed in the book (I’m gutted I wasn’t around to sample them) and before long MSF had become as hot as Hades and demand was outstripping resource.
So Mission Street Food ditched the truck, and moved in to a rather scabby looking Chinese Restaurant in the Mission district called Lung Shan. The deal that Myint and Leibowitzt struck up with the restaurant owners was that they’d take over their dining room on Thursday and Saturday evenings, sharing the kitchen with the restaurants existing chefs who would still be knocking up take-away for deliveries. A pretty improbable arrangement, but it seemed to work. With an already strong social media fueled fan base, they were packed from the first night they opened, and despite what they described as a pretty shambolic opening, they served more food to more people than they ever could with the truck.
Over the next few months, MSF went from strength to strength, but it also continued to evolve. Myint was still working at Bar Tartine, and Leibowitz as a lecturer at Berkley University, which made planning, preparing and cooking for their weekly extravaganzas challenging to say the least. So they threw ‘their’ kitchen doors open to other chefs, inviting them to contribute to the weekly menus, whilst taking a bit of pressure off.
As a couple who seem to have a constant desire to innovate, Mission Street Food was never going to be a permanent fixture, and in June of 2010 it served it’s final meal. But it wasn’t game over for Lung Shan as Myint handed over the reigns of the dining room to friend and co-conspirator Danny Bowien and Mission Street Food became Mission Chinese Food. Since then the couple have been busy consulting, opening other restaurants (Commonwealth) and pop ups (the now closed Mission Burger), developing links with food based charities and writing a book. Slackers they are not.
As we hoped, hearing their story was really inspirational. I’m not sure what the other people at the event took away, but our feeling was that, talent aside, their success is due in great part to a few key factors. Neither Myint or Leibowitz had that much experience, but they had (and still have) a desire to do something different, and they went for it. Secondly, they were flexible in realising their goals. Without this flexibility, they probably would have run themselves into the ground, but they saw the benefit of switching things up, working out deals, finding collaborators and so on. Our third observation was that San Francisco played quite a big part. It’s a city that LOVES food and supports this kind of ‘can do’ attitude, and not just on a faddish level. I wish I could say the same of London. Finally, we were impressed with the idea of the democratisation of fine dining. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m no fan of fine dining. The snobbery, fussyness and atmosphere of fine dining restaurants don’t sit well with me, but part of Myint and Leibowitz’s mission was to apply the classical techniques and traditions of such places to food that is more accessible to the general populous. Smart thinking both from a point of view of keeping costs down, but also in terms of keeping their army of fans happy.
Speaking of being kept happy, over the course of the evening we were also served a very tasty three course meal by Myint. We started with a beef carpaccio, featuring very thinly sliced beautifully seared rib eye steak (cut against the grain – a technique he elaborates on in the book), a mozarella mousse dispensed from a C02 charged siphon (natch), a very tasty relish of olive, caper, pistachio, parsley, shallot, lemon juice and olive oil, and some insanely spicy crisps. A slightly odd combination, but it all worked well together.
The main course was a chicken Caesar salad, which was pretty traditional, but had some nice little touches. The chicken was ‘confited’ in chicken fat, before being grilled, and was served with some chicken skin crisps (if only Walkers would make these). There were also a few slices of avacado, a couple of boquerones and a generous shaving of Parmesan.
The meal was rounded off with a dish created for one of MSF’s theme evenings, Breakfast For Dinner, their take on Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Made with a doorstep slice of ACME’s pain de mie spread both sides with butter, and then dredged with sugar and cinnamon before being brûléed with a blow-torch and floated in a pool of condensed and regular milk. Sounds odd. Tasted great.
So, a great evening with plenty of food for both body and mind. Towards the end of the evening, were lucky to have the opportunity to have a good chat with Leibowitz as she helped her hubby dish up the desert, getting more on her perspectives on starting a business amongst other things. But I’ve written far too much already, so this may have to wait for another time.