I can’t get over the pictures of the Lung Shan staff from this week’s Vice feature on Mission Chinese Food.
I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamic between these grizzled Chinese cooks and their young, hip, culinary hot-shot restaurant-mates. In case you never bothered to look up at the sign, Mission Chinese Food rents its space from Lung Shan and has essentially taken over. Lung Shan’s menu is now largely ignored.
Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien mentioned that the owners have operated the restaurant decades and never seemed concerned that business was slow, they just liked having a place to hang out. Sure enough, if you ever go in on a weekday during off-hours you’ll see them sitting at the round table in the back chatting and reading the papers. When you order something off their menu, one of them casually gets up, strolls to the kitchen, and cooks it.
I hear a lot of criticism of Mission Chinese Food from Asian Americans for not being authentic enough, notably from my parents who are restaurant owners themselves. But I don’t think that’s the point. Bowien has always admitted that he’s still learning to cook Chinese food. Still, it’s clear his fresh approach has struck a chord with a generation that these old-timers could never reach.
Chinese food has sadly taken a turn towards the junk food genre in America, being generalized a cheap take-out experience. Did you know that Panda Express is in the running for the “Best of Milpitas” list in the category of “Best Chinese (overall)”? Shocking. Sometimes it takes an outsider to break out of the mold.
Me? I like both the old and the new. My grandfather was a cook in a restaurant much like Lung Shan while I was a kid. At home, his food wasn’t gourmet, but I’ll never forget such fusion creations as “vienna sausage fried rice” and “fried fish with ketchup”. Not exactly traditional. He also was fond of peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, something that I urge all discerning palates to try.
Sometimes I feel the urge to dust off my shitty 1st-grade-level Cantonese and ask these guys about how they feel about this new crop of oddly-dressed kids dining in their restaurant. But I’m sure they would answer like many folks of their generation do, with a subdued shrug and “business is good.”