SFoodie's countdown of our favorite 50 things to eat and drink, 2012 edition.
Kung pao pastrami all started, Anthony Myint says, when Ryan Ostler, the former chef of Broken Record and a southern-food popup at Bruno's, loaned the Mission Chinese Food team a smoker, and Danny Bowien got all excited about the idea of barbecue. Mission Chinese Food started serving barbecued lamb cheeks with a Coca Cola sauce and pickles, and soon after -- perhaps remembering to stay on his mission of twisting up Chinese American food -- Bowien stir-fried some barbecued corn beef with chiles and peanuts and called it "kung pao."
Since Sichuan and Hunan chefs introduced kung pao chicken to Americans in the 1970s, it has become one of those dishes that you can order in any Chinese restaurant in the country, whether it's Abilene or New Haven. In fact, for a few years, Americans were allowed to eat the dish when Chinese diners weren't. Sichuanese-cuisine expert Fuchsia Dunlop writes that, because gong bao ji ding was named after a Qing Dynasty governor, it was renamed during the Cultural Revolution and "rehabilitated" in the 1980s.
Typically, kung pao pastrami has followed Mission Chinese Food's template of respecting and flaunting several different culinary traditions at once. These days, Myint says, chef de cuisine Jesse Koide amps up a jarred Chinese chile sauce with extra toasted chiles, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns to coat the cured beef, now smoked over applewood and mesquite. Onions go in too, becoming transparent and slippery, and potato slices soften up just enough to lose their crunch, a role left to the green onions and celery thrown in near the end.
The smoked beef, which barely holds together by the time it's tilted from the wok onto the plate, sucks up enough of the crimson marinade to glow red. Which is what your lips, and perhaps your ears, do, too, after the first couple of bites -- especially if you mistake a jalapeñ slice for some celery. The permanent popup's fare has gotten more subtle as it has evolved, but the throbbingly spiced, smoky, garlicky dish is a reminder of just how potent its food, and its WTF approach to cooking, can be.
Mission Chinese Food, in Lung Shan, 2234 Mission (at 18th St.), 621-3870.
Other favorites in this series:
33: Izakaya Yuzuki's chawanmushi
34: Fatted Calf's chorizo
35: Silvanas from House of Silvanas
36: Linden Street Brewery's black lager
37: Aged oolongs from Red Blossom Tea Company
38: Broken Record's crawfish grits
39: Cebiche mixto from La Mar