The decline of Mission Chinese Food

Michael Bauer has dropped Mission Chinese Food in SF down to a food rating of 1.5 stars.

Many favorites are a shadow of what they were when I initially reviewed the restaurant as well as when I updated it 18 months ago, about six months after Bowien started spending the bulk of his time in New York. On that visit, the food had lost a bit of luster but still showed his vision.

My all-time favorite dish - salt-cod fried rice ($12) with Chinese sausage and confit mackerel - shows how the cooking has devolved. On my recent visit it was as dry as sawdust, although there were glimmers of what I had loved in the interplay between land and sea.

Another favorite, ma po tofu ($12), which used to be thick with ground pork, seems to have been reformulated. It now has a greasy broth with too-large cubes of tofu and a one-dimensional heat that masked the earthy shiitake and aged chile sauce.

I agree. My recent few deliveries from MIssion Chinese have been so disappointing: the beef in the broccoli beef brisket was overcooked, as were the Chongqing chicken wings. Westlake rice porridge lacked the usual comforting flavor blend of salt and brine. It was just bland. The market greens, which have always been braised baby bok choy for as long as I've been ordering from them, have been successively less and less flavorful, lacking both salt and garlic.

Bauer theorizes the decline in the food quality at Mission Chinese Food may be due to the absence of Danny Bowien from the kitchen. Bowien is off in NYC working on Mission Cantina and searching for a new location for his NYC branch of Mission Chinese Food; the initial location was a hit but was closed by the Department of Health for pest-related issues last November (yikes).

With a much longer commute than I had in LA, a dearth of street parking throughout San Francisco, and the scarcity of good restaurants in SOMA near my apartment, I have come to depend on restaurant delivery for more meals than at any point in my life since my years in NYC.

The SF food delivery scene is, to be blunt, a desert. I'm not counting the possibility of using Postmates to expand the delivery options to include more restaurants that offer takeout; that's a fairly hefty price premium that I hesitate to resort to except when I'm desperate.

Obi Wan Bowien, come back and whip that kitchen into shape! You're our only hope.

The cost of commuting

There is a clear connection between social deficit and the shape of cities. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live in monofunctional, car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.

A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, compared German commuters' estimation of the time it took them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing question, "How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?"

Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling On Happiness, explained the commuting paradox this way: "Most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery."

Much more here. The irony of my move from Los Angeles to San Francisco has been an enormous lengthening of my commute, it's the longest of my life, and I feel that pain acutely. LA is legendary for its bad traffic, yet the overall lower cost of living in that region makes it far easier to live closer to where you work which is ultimately what matters the most. The quest to get from the West Side to downtown during rush hour in Los Angeles is actually much less painful and long than having to drive up the 101 to San Francisco from the Peninsula during rush hour.

Most days I take the Caltrain, but again, it's the variability of the service that drives me crazy, to Daniel Gilbert's point. At least once or twice a month, something catastrophic causes train service to just dry up for several hours, leaving you stranded. Often it's because of a suicide, at other times it's a car that gets hit, or a power line that falls, or something else you would think would be a rare black swan event. And then your evening is shot, your dinner date left to make alternative plans, unless you pony up for a $90 to $100 taxi or Uber up to the city, but oh wait, the traffic on the 101 means you won't make it on time anyway.

It's difficult to judge what it's like to live in a city just by visiting as a tourist. It wasn't until I'd lived in NYC for a year that I realized it's a far better city to live in than to visit, contrary to popular wisdom. The same is true of Los Angeles, where most natives know when to avoid certain highways at certain times, spending more time in their neighborhood.

For all the good that cities have brought to the U.S., they fail miserably, with the exception of New York, on the quality of public transportation. At least 30% of my pleasure in visiting cities in Europe is being in an environment that makes me, as a pedestrian, first among citizens. American cities were built up in the age of the automobile, and that metallic beast has taken control of our cities in a way that may not be overturned in our lifetime.

It may be that China is where we see some of the greatest innovation on this urban planning dilemma. For one thing, their hand may be forced by the shockingly high levels of pollution in their largest cities. They also face a huge migration of people from rural to urban areas, probably the largest in human history. Combine that with a form of government that has much more freedom to impose its will in matters great and small and you have the potential for a new type of city to be erected, one that is built around direct human mobility rather than transportation by automobile.

The high cost of cheap parking

An informative history of the birth of the parking meter and how its slowness in evolving with the times has helped to prolong the hegemony of the car and driving in America.

In his definitive book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Donald Shoup explains that minimum parking requirements “led planners and developers to think that parking is a problem only when there isn’t enough of it. But too much parking is also a problem—it wastes money, degrades urban design, increases impervious surface area, and encourages overuse of cars.” Besides the fact that legally required lots are often more than half-empty, they result in a variety of negative impacts, from environmental runoff issues to inhospitable pedestrian zones. Instead of using the tools available to limit automobile use and encourage free-flowing street traffic, Shoup explains that planners traditionally did the opposite, requiring “enough off-street spaces to satisfy the peak demand for free parking.”

Additionally, such ordinances falsely reduced the explicit cost of city driving, transferring the true expense of so-called “free” parking to every citizen in the vicinity, diffused into taxes, real estate, product, and service fees. In effect, this legislation created an environment where “nobody can opt out of paying for parking,” says Jeff Speck, renowned urban planner and author of the book, “Walkable Cities.”

According to Speck, “people who walk, bike, or take transit are bankrolling those who drive. In so doing, they are making driving cheaper and thus more prevalent, which in turn undermines the quality of walking, biking, and taking transit.” Furthermore, our plethora of free parking resulted in a range of negative consequences still unaccounted for: “The social costs of not charging for curb parking—traffic congestion, air pollution, accidents, wasted time, and wasted fuel—are enormous,” writes Shoup.

At the end of the article, San Francisco is cited as the leading city in swapping out old parking meters for new ones whose rates can be adjusted on the fly and that can be paid in a variety of ways, including by phone (through the PayByPhone mobile app). I've consistently use the mobile app on my iPhone to pay those meters now, and it beats carrying around a pound of quarters.

However, I still find it impossible to find parking in San Francisco most places I go. Perhaps the rates aren't high enough to sit at the intersection of supply and demand curves. The ideal pricing would have most spots filled but a few spots empty at all times so drivers wouldn't spend their time circling the block looking for a spot.

NY and SF: dining rivals

A reader asked San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer why celebrity NY chefs and restauranteurs didn't open outposts in San Francisco. Bauer's theory:

We’re a little provincial, a little smug about our homegrown talent, and a little less enthralled with big-name chefs who garner fame elsewhere and then bring a concept here.

As you can imagine with a topic like this, the comment thread escalated immediately into a bar fight between left and right coast foodies (if you see people and bottles and chairs flying out saloon windows, avoid the place).

If that's true, it's a loss for San Francisco, which does have a high density of hard-core foodies. Insularity is not healthy when it comes to dining, not in this day and age where chefs and diners can grow up learning and tasting so many different types of cuisine. It used to be that the sacred rule of thumb was that you didn't eat at an ethnic restaurant unless the clientele comprised a large number of people of that ethnicity. While it's still a useful diagnostic shortcut for more obscure cuisines or less diverse geographies, it has started to let me down more and more in the major US cities.

Chefs apprentice all over the world now, but even if they stay close to home, they usually have access to kitchens preparing all types of cuisine. Specialized ingredients are easier to source anywhere in the world now. Information wants to be free, and ethnic culinary secrets are no exception.

It's nonsensical that foodies who pride themselves on openness to all types of cuisine would not have that same attitude towards chefs from other cities.