Mission Chinese Food is a great challenge for wine lovers. It's great, because corkage is only $8. It's a challenge, because some of Danny Bowien's food, like the kung pao corned beef, is so spicy that drinking certain wines is like throwing alcohol on the flames: your mouth-burn only gets worse.
Normally with spicy food you want light-bodied, low-alcohol, slightly sweet wines. That's why you often see Riesling on the wine list at Thai restaurants (it's what I almost always order). Most red wines are a mistake, because the heat kills their flavor. I always laugh at people I see ordering Cabernet in Indian restaurants.
But Bowien isn't only cranking up the heat. A very few of his dishes, like the slow-cooked char siu pork belly, are so delectably meaty that they cry out for red wine. However, the salt cod fried rice, one of his best dishes, wouldn't work with a red; it's too salty and fishy.
So what to bring?
On my last visit I brought two bottles: Pacific Rim Columbia Valley Riesling 2010 ($10), and the ringer, Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui 2009 ($20).
The Riesling is an easy choice. Its sweetness level is between Pacific Rim's Dry Riesling and Sweet Riesling (I also like both of those). It has stone fruit and apple flavors with floral notes in the aroma, and it's superb with the salt cod fried rice. I don't recommend buying a wine for its bottle design; that said, this one is particularly cool.
There's no other wine I know exactly like the Rosa Regale. It's a slightly sparkling light red wine that tastes of ripe berries lightly dusted with sugar. While it's more restrained than I'm making it sound, it's too sweet for me to have as an aperitif, but not sweet enough for dessert. Spicy Chinese food might be its perfect use.
The Rosa Regale has the red berry character you want with lamb dishes like sizzling cumin lamb, yet it's also light and refreshing and eminently gulpable. On the same table with the Riesling, it seems less serious, yet our table of wine lovers emptied it first.
About that -- at home, I like opening several bottles at once and trying them with different dishes. Usually that's not possible in restaurants; servers are in a rush to clear one set of glasses. I get around this at Mission Chinese Food by bringing my own set of cheap glasses, usually left over from tastings. On my last visit I brought an entire set of ZAP glasses, all free, but it took me four years to assemble it. We broke one, so I won't have a complete set again until after next January.
I know, bringing your own glasses is not something most people do. But it has advantages at Mission Chinese Food: Not only could we all have both wines open at the same time, but we were charged only one $8 corkage fee for both bottles.
You might try these same wines with Korean food, another cuisine where mouth-burn is an issue yet where delicate fish dishes and bold meat dishes often share space on the same table. Don't be afraid of a little sweetness; think of it as your reward for mastering the fire.