If, while passing through one of the bleaker stretches of Mission Street on a Thursday night, you spy a clutch of people clustered around the door of a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, you might want to follow the old Russian consumer model and join the line on the assumption that there's probably something worth waiting for.
And whether you're a foodie hungry for imaginative new dishes, a restaurant groupie excited by the next new thing, or a social historian interested in trends in dining out and communication, you'd be right. Because the crowd is waiting to enjoy whatever is on the brief but compelling menu cooked up that Thursday (and that Thursday only) by the gifted and determined Anthony Myint and whoever has joined him as guest chef at the three-month-old Mission Street Food.
Myint didn't train professionally as a chef. He left a career in market research to work as a prep chef at Delica rf-1 in the Ferry Building, gained organizing skills as a catering manager at Specialty's Bakery and Cafe, and refined his cooking skills as a line chef at Bar Tartine. Just a few blocks away from Bar Tartine, he noticed that a popular street food truck, Antojitos San Miguel, was dark on Thursdays, which happened to be his night off. He rented the truck, and spread the word that he'd be serving not-your-usual street food at 21st and Mission streets, using the viral marketing of today: e-mails to friends, who forward them in a hopefully never-ending daisy chain of cool-hunters. On Oct. 2, the first evening they were open for business, Myint and his wife, Karen Leibowitz, were stunned and almost overwhelmed by the crowds who stood patiently in line to receive his version of a PB&J ($5) — not the kids' sandwich, but succulent Kurobuta pork belly and crunchy jicama garnished with pickled jalapeño and slicked with cilantro aioli on homemade flatbread.
If the customers were lucky enough to get one, that is: The food ran out before the line did. Over the next few weeks, the crowds grew, drawing the attention of an angry neighbor and the police, who cited a few people for drinking alcohol out of paper bags.
By the end of October, readers of the Mission Street Food blog (www.blog.missionstreetfood.com) learned that the couple would be taking their show on the road — well, down the road. They'd be serving food on plates in a room with real tables that at all times besides Thursdays from 6 p.m. to midnight is Lung Shan, a Chinese restaurant. In fact, Lung Shan still does takeout on Thursdays, sharing the modest kitchen.
The menu for the week ahead can be found on the blog. The first night we dined there was Local Business Night, "featuring the delights of two up-and-coming local businesses, the Broken Record and Humphry Slocombe," the first an Excelsior bar featuring 114 whiskeys and their own smoked meats, and the second a new ice cream shop on Harrison at 24th Street where we'd already run riot.
Our band of four easily tried everything on the six-item savory list, where there were hits (the justly famed signature luscious PB&J, now $6; a faro salad with beech mushrooms, macadamia nuts, grapes, marjoram, and a verjus vinaigrette, $5) and misses (oddly broken burrata drizzled with rosemary oil, topped with pine nuts and sided with yam chips, $6.50). There was also MSF (Mission Street Food) rice, a homey plate of smoky rice fried in duck fat with Liberty duck confit, duck skin cracklings, shiitake mushrooms, and cauliflower ($7), which we also tried in its vegetarian version, VSF (Vegetarian Street Food) rice, with beautifully fried tofu tempura replacing the duck ($6). The sandwich of the Broken Record's brisket ($9), on a good homemade bun garnished with caramelized onion, pickled fennel, and avocado salsa, wasn't barbecue godhead. The little cubes of meat seemed too tough, but we still thought we'd like to travel to the Broken Record and see what else it might have to offer. We tried all the Humphry Slocombe ice creams available ($3.25 a scoop): Vietnamese Blue Bottle coffee, balsamic caramel, and our favorite, Secret Breakfast: bourbon with a crunch of cornflakes. We weren't given the bum's rush, exactly, but since we were at the first seating, we were aware of the waiting hordes, cash in hand, who were happy to see us go.
Our next visit coincided with the introduction of Leibowitz and Myint's secret goal all along: to run Mission Street Food as a nonprofit donating all proceeds to charity. That night, Project Open Hand and C.H.E.F.S. (Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services) were the beneficiaries. "Another Inauguration" featured food from Ryan Farr, now running his own catering business after leaving his chef de cuisine post at Orson.
Again, we tried everything on the six-item savory menu. Three were fabulous: the BBQ ribs, Sichuan-glazed falling-off-the-bone pork served on lightly chile'd rice garnished with satsuma segments ($9); beans and weenies, a plump homemade hot dog atop tiny, tasty chili beans ($8); and the BBBLT, a flatbread topped with braised Benton's bacon, romaine lettuce, baked tomato, and aioli, worthy of a place in the pantheon next to the PB&J. The Rockets' Red Glare salad ($6) — arugula, roasted beets, pistachio pesto, and strips of curried snowy lardo (cured pig fat) — was as good as some starters available elsewhere at twice the price. But the applewood-smoked macaroni and cheese ($6) was gummy and stolid, and the roll for the sandwich of boneless spicy buttermilk chicken ($6) grew soggy and fell apart from its too-wet coleslaw.
The warm apple pie's crust was flavored with pepper and star anise ($6), but even better was butter-fried cornbread served with a barely-jelled buttermilk panna cotta, minted honey, and fried sage leaves ($6). The Slocombe ice creams ($3.25) were themed: Baracky Road, with homemade chocolate-dipped marshmallows, and I Have a Dreamsicle.
Leibowitz and Myint have a dream, too, and foodie San Franciscans can join them on Thursdays (and maybe a second night soon). The idea that good food can also do some good seems not only delicious, but also timely.