A visitor to Lung Shan restaurant in the Mission gets two menus:
a) Standard American Chinese fare. Like most Chinese food in America, it is made by Cantonese-speaking first-generation immigrants. This is the Lung Shan menu.
b) Very non-standard, California-influenced Szechuan and Islamic Chinese. Unlike most Chinese food in America, it is made by Danny Bowien, a one-time world pesto champion who looks like an Asian headbanger. Bowien cooks Chinese food because Asian cuisine is the only genre of cooking that he has not gotten bored with. When Bowien explains to the kitchen staff how to cook a dish, he has to act out each step of the process, because he does not speak Cantonese and so there is no shared language to communicate how the food needs to be made, beyond action. This is the Mission Chinese Food menu.
And then there is the matter of the third secret menu. This is what the staff of Lung Shan actually eats, because Chinese food in America is very different from Chinese food in China. According to Bowien, it is only offered to customers who speak Cantonese.
The story of Lung Shan and its two (official) menus dates back to October 2008, when Anthony Myint, a line cook at Bar Tartine, walked door to door down the length of Mission Street looking for a restaurant with a real kitchen that would let him rent the space for a once-a-week temporary restaurant.
The deal with Lung Shan was settled in about a minute, forming a relationship of uncertain legality (Mission Street Food, as it was called, was not in possession of any of its own permits). That arrangement gradually morphed into this: Myint became an employee of Lung Shan — albeit one that paid them to occasionally take over their restaurant. The menus were split temporally: Mission Street food twice a week, Lung Shan the rest of the time. In July, Mission Street Food closed and Mission Chinese Food opened, with Bowien at the helm. Since then the menus have operated in parallel.
Once I learned about it, the third secret menu that preoccupied me. This is not because secret menus are especially uncommon. Many restaurants in San Francisco have secret menus. Even fast-food restaurants have secret menus. The reason I was preoccupied is because a few years ago, I did something to myself that produced the unintended consequence of ruining most Chinese food in America for me forever. I went to China.
It’s not that what I ate was that dramatic. It was this:
- Noodles (handmade)
- Vegetables (not always identifiable)
- Chilis (very hot)
- A few thin slices of something that I chose to not identify because I was ostensibly vegetarian, but which, after writing an article that involved watching a pig being dismembered, I am now reasonably sure was fried pigskin
I once had a friend who was adopted from Korea as an infant. When, out of curiosity, she went there as an adult, everything felt strangely right. The people looked familiar. The clothes fit. The food was so delicious that she felt like it was waiting for her to find it.
I was not adopted from China. Nothing in China fit me. But I felt like I could eat the food that I ate there every day for the rest of my life. And I was curious about how the food on the secret menu would compare to the food at Mission Street Food.
So I called Ed.
Ed lives in the warehouse down the street from me. I found out that she speaks Cantonese when I told her a story about a friend of mine, who began studying Chinese so that one day he could talk to his extended family. He was fairly fluent in Mandarin before he realized that they were all Cantonese speakers. Mandarin is the official language in China. Even Cantonese-speaking families send their kids to Mandarin lessons.
“Ed!” I said. “Come with me to a Chinese restaurant and order in Cantonese so that we can eat off the secret menu!”
I heard a deep sigh at the other end of the phone. “You’re not going to like it,” she said. “There’s going to be pig blood.”
“I’ll buy you lunch.”
Ed has conflicted feelings about Chinese everything, because she claims that as an unmarried, childless woman with an insufficiently impressive car (Volkswagen Golf, dented) she is considered within the culture of her upbringing to be kind of a waste of space. Before she held up the Lung Shan menu I had never heard her speak Cantonese. It was thrilling. Like finding out that one of my friends could play the violin, or fly.
The waitress looked at us with complete disdain.
There was, she said back in Cantonese, nothing that was not on the menu. There was never anything that was not on the menu. We were very much in error. Once we had decided what to order off of one of the actual menus, then she would come and take our order. And then she stomped away.
I looked up. Bowien was making dumplings in the corner. “Is there secret food in the back?” I asked. He nodded.
Ed looked at me. “See,” she said, “xenophobia isn’t just about language. It’s also about class. Even if I came in without you, she might not let me eat that food.”
“Come to think of it,” said Bowien, “I’ve only seen her serve it to Chinese men. I think they’re construction workers.”
“What is it?”
“Mostly bitter melon.”
“Ah,” said Ed, sadly. “Bitter melon. That’s one of the most identifiably Chinese foods there is. That’s food for people who are homesick.”
Even if you don’t believe that the Chinese made it to the Americas before Columbus did, Chinese food has been here long enough to become its own thing entirely. Chinese food in the States has its own dishes never heard of in China, like General Tso’s chicken. Fortune cookies are actually from the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Skillfully made authentic Chinese food outside of China itself is still sufficiently difficult to find that when people do find it, it can drive them a bit mad.
“Someone gave me a book once,” said Ed. “It was called “Secrets of Chinese Cooking.” I was so excited. I thought maybe I could learn how to cook the food I grew up with, without having to ask my my mom. But then I flipped through the pages and it was just ketchup, cornstarch. The same horrible distorted thing like you find in restaurants.”
So we ordered off the Mission Chinese Food menu. There was an egg custard with pieces of duck inside it. There were Szechuan pickles, with cabbage and fresh-roasted peanuts. There were fresh mushroom dumplings.
It wasn’t exactly Chinese food, said Ed. Too much meat, for one thing. And where she grew up, the preference was for lean meat instead of fatty. But she was visibly glowing. Her grandmother used to roast her own peanuts, she said, and they tasted like these. Her grandmother used to ferment her own black beans, and they tasted like these.
I bet, said Ed, hopefully, this was the menu of a second-generation son. Someone who had told his parents that the way to make money was to make food like you would find in the old country, make it from better ingredients, and charge more for it.
No such luck, I said. As a young child, Bowien was flown out to Oklahoma on a plane from Korea. There he was raised on pickled okra and Hamburger Helper. Today he does things like ferment oil-poached fish paste, make confit and fortified stock, and braise meat for ages in the underpowered oven the way that people did in the ages before monosodium glutamate. But it’s all out of affection. There’s no history behind it. He has never even been to China.
How? “This is cooking,” says Bowien, cheerfully. “It’s not rocket science.”