Illustration by Anika Orrock

Love LettersSan Francisco

Ode to the Ones That Break the Mold


I’ve always felt a special connection to Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco.  It might be because one of the restaurant’s founders, Anthony Myint, shares the same Burmese background that I do. Perhaps it’s because he and his wife/co-founder Karen Leibowitz used to be my neighbors, or it might be that the restaurant has roots in a little food truck on 21st and Mission, the closest corner to my current home. Admittedly, these are random reasons, convenient coincidences, all very personal.

But the more I think about why I love MCF, and still consider it an essential San Francisco restaurant to this day, might be because it’s one of a kind. Nothing, even its East Coast spinoff, could replicate it. As time passes, I’m realizing the true value and beauty of restaurants that break the mold and try to impact their world well beyond mind-bending food.

Restaurants like this shift the entire mindset of what a restaurant can be.

Before there was Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, and before there were expansions in New York, there was Lung Shan restaurant, a divey Chinese restaurant on Mission Street. After briefly operating the aforementioned food truck, Myint and Leibowitz formed a partnership with the owners of Lung Shan to operate a pop-up called Mission Street Food, which would host a rotating cast of guest chefs — 70 in total during its 20-month run, largely consisting of line cooks and sous chefs that finally got an opportunity to cook whatever food they wanted. One of those visitors was, of course, Danny Bowien, who would join forces with Myint and help open up Mission Chinese Food as a permanent residency of sorts within Lung Shan in 2010.

The scrappiness, the resourcefulness, the ingenuity of it all from the very beginning — I loved everything about it.

In the early days, the energy was high and the music was loud; these days, the restaurant has dialed it down a touch — but not too much. The vibe is still right.

The space is dimly lit, with white Christmas candles that hang from the ceiling and along the walls. Strategically placed red lights illuminate a rosy glow throughout the room. And the massive Chinese dragon that hovers above you as you feast on the fiery fare — there’s nothing like it.

The walls are half-covered with a padded shiny silver that seems like it could double up as your car sun shield. There are giant vintage posters of majestic leaders on horseback, flowing waterfalls, and a giant phoenix in flight — all still intact from the original Lung Shan.

Like the vibe, the food has been dialed down a bit, but probably for the better. In the early days, the heat and spice level were face-meltingly intense. But now it’s more balanced.

I always go back for the classics. The kung pao pastrami is better than ever, maybe because next door neighbor Wes Rowe of WesBurger helps with smoking the meat (the man is from Texas, after all). The chunky meaty cubes that contrast with the cooling crunch of the celery combined with peanuts and soft little fried potato pieces. It’s all so satisfying and remains a greatest hit.

My other go-to dishes?

I lean towards the vegan mapo tofu these days, which comes with enough mushrooms and umami to leave me with no FOMO. If I have leftovers, I put it on everything I can, from pizza to French-style omelets.

I always add the crispy tripe supplement to the Chongqing chicken wings. I can’t stop eating them.

And the thrice-cooked bacon-and-rice cakes. I’m unsure if I can name a better-balanced dish as complex as delicious as this; the smoky salty bacon, the spongey sweet tofu skin, bitter bites of bitter melon, umami blasts from the salty black beans, and the chewy rice cakes, of course. It’s all in harmony.

Chongqing chicken wings and kung pao pastrami.

But here’s the big thing: From very early on in the Mission Street Food days, Myint and Leibowitz donated a portion of profits to local charities, such as Project Open Hand, which delivers meals to the sick and vulnerable. The charitable component continued with Mission Chinese Food. Over the years, they’ve donated $0.75 for every single entree to the San Francisco Food Bank, effectively raising over 1,400,000 meals for those in need. Having a charitable component and becoming a socially conscious business is nothing new — but at MCF, it feels less of a means of marketing and more part of the DNA.

These days, Myint and Leibowitz have turned their focus towards Zero Food Print, a non-profit that supports regenerative agriculture. Zero Food Print members, which include restaurants as well as others businesses, pledge 1% of sales towards programs that help implement carbon farming programs and healthy soil projects. Since 2020, the organization has awarded over 30 grants for over $550,000 — which will help eliminate 18,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

The legacy of kung pao pastrami remains. But it’s the non-profit that will likely be Myint and Leibowitz’s life work, the most important thing that they’ll contribute to the world. Mission Chinese Food is just one part of their ongoing story, and it remains an essential and important restaurant — for myself and for San Francisco.

Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him at @ommmar.