DINE As a rule, I am wary of restaurants where you order items by the number — especially when the numbers run into the hundreds. You start to think it’s like an automotive plant back there in the kitchen, where they’re slapping on option groups (fog lamps, alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel) according to some big book of codes. Of course restaurant kitchens are like factories — are factories — we all know this, but there is such a thing as too much choice and too much process, even in America. I’m not sure anyone truly needs, or even wants, DishTV’s 500-plus channels, or a restaurant menu that has to be printed on several folios, like a poetry chapbook.
Chinese restaurants are notable, in my experience, for being more likely than other kinds of restaurants to offer a far greater number of dishes than any restaurant kitchen could be expected to cook with attentive passion, but a notable exception is Mission Chinese Food at Lung Shan. On any given night — even a cold weeknight — you might think you’ve stumbled on a crowd of people waiting to audition for “Brooklyn: The Musical.” Every hipster for miles around seems to be wedged into the dining room waiting for a table. It is a veritable hipsterama, and I mean this in the best possible way.
Hipsters have a certain reputation for shunning math — or is that meth? — and (perhaps because of being raised in a culture of shopping-mall vapidity) show a craving for any validating experience that can be described with the adjective “street.” So maybe their massive presence here is a response to the street-food menu, which numbers just a few dozen items. Or maybe they just know good food, at a good price, when they find it. There is plenty of agreeably mediocre Chinese food to be had in San Francisco, but not at MCF. The cooking here is clever and forceful, and it’s also gently incendiary. This is the kind of food that makes your nose run. You can also get Chinese beer for $3 a bottle; as Bart Simpson once put it after agreeing to let the vet spay Homer and give him a flea bath for $20, “shop around, you can’t beat that price!”
Even the cold items carry a chili charge. Tiger salad, for instance ($7) — an irresistible name; who could resist having it? — consisted of four squat pillars of herbed lettuces, red perilla (a kind of shiso leaf), and roasted seaweed in a puddle of chili oil, as if the plate’s previous tenant had been some greasy chorizo. But even with all the exhilarating heat, even cold heat, you soon understand that this is Chinese-influenced cooking, not Chinese cooking.
Salt cod fried rice ($10), for example, sounds like something the Vikings might have cooked up ago while sailing across the north Atlantic. Despite the fancy emendations, including confit of escolar, the dish seemed very much like other fried rice dishes you’d find around town, with little rounds of Chinese sausage, like a sliced-up red pencil, lending a defining presence, along with scallion for color contrast.
The menu’s signature dish could well be the sizzling cumin lamb ($12.50), served on a sizzling iron platter that keeps gently cooking the onion slivers and slices of jalapeño pepper as you pluck out chunks of the highly scented lamb. The meat is from the belly and is therefore quite fatty; it takes the form of jointed spindles whose two arms are glued together by the melted fat. It is rich, intensely perfumed, spicy-hot, and (for an auditory thrill) actually sizzling. We could not ask more from any meat dish.
Still, after working your way through a plate of such weighty food, a bit of relaxation would be in order — a bath, say, in a broad bowl of broth filled with pork dumplings ($10). The steam itself was — a kind of pork aromatherapy — and there was a strong temptation to put towels over our heads and hold our faces in the steam flow.
Lung Shan’s street face is about as prosaic as it gets. It doesn’t look to have been freshened for decades and gives no hint of the crowd that gathers there when the sun goes down. But thrill-seekers know that there’s no thrill quite so thrilling as the unadvertised one.
MISSION CHINESE FOOD AT LUNG SHAN
Thurs.–Tues., 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
2234 Mission, SF
Beer and wine