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Summer Travels: Tea-Smoked Eel at San Francisco's Mission Chinese Food

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What's the best thing about attending a good friend's wedding in Mendocino country, California?

The excuse to fly into San Francisco early and partake of its amazing food offerings. (A close second: wine-tasting in Napa and Sonoma.)

I have been lucky enough to visit San Francisco about a half dozen times, and even though there are literally hundreds of restaurants on my list to try, I usually find myself gravitating to favorites such as Burma Superstar. When I mentioned to a couple friends of mine who had spent significant time in the city, they only recommended one place: Mission Chinese Food.

The name initially confused as me as in the neighborhood of San Francisco known as "The Mission" hosts more than one Chinese restaurant. And once I found the specific establishment, I was further confused by its claim to serve "Americanized Oriental Food." I mean, not that I have any beef with American Chinese food, but did I really have to go all the way to the Bay area to get good chop suey, egg rolls, and lo mein?

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The answer, of course, is "no," but that's neither here nor there since Mission Chinese Food's "Americanized" Asian food is perhaps the most innovative fusion fare I've ever experienced. Judging from the website's proclamation, "we reserve the right to refuse delivery if we are too busy" as well as the stories online citing lines around the corner, many others seem to agree.

Unlike many other Chinese American restaurants, Mission Chinese Food does not boast a voluminous menu. The relatively limited choice does not, however, make it any easier to decide, especially when virtually every single entree listed gets very good if not rave reviews. After reading (and hearing from my friends) more than times that I "had" to order the tea-smoked eel, I chose it as my "small dish"

Within a rice flour casing similar to dim sum favorite chee cheong fun lay a mixture of flaky eel, celery, and braised pork mixed with salted plum hoisin. The sweet fish and porcine flavors made the roll's contents a unique spin on surf and turf and the celery provided a lovely botanical crunch. Those elements alone would have made the dish a clear winner; however, add on the elastic, slightly sweet carbohydrate shell and the dressing of smoky cognac soy sauce, and the tea-smoked eel emerged as triumphant panoply of Eastern and Western proteins and textures.

Although my entree, the kung pao pastrami, also came heavily recommended, the two flame symbols prefacing its listing on the menu almost deterred me. Remembering my summer resolution to build up my tolerance for spicy foods, I ordered it without tacking on some lame plea to make it less hot. Maybe the woman who took my order sensed the hesitation in my voice because the pastrami evinced only a mild heat that was easily superseded by the juicy nuggets of beef. Their fattiness would have made the dish too rich if not for the balance provided by the peanuts and celery.

Both dishes were sufficiently excellent as to make myself vow to take Burma Superstar out of my San Francisco rotation (for now) and instead focus on trying Mission Chinese Food's other unusual offerings, especially the schmaltz rice and "General Tso's veal rib. If you happen to be going to SF this summer, why not beat me to it and report back.

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