Let’s get right to the point: Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant by Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz is awesome. Awesome. And by that I mean: a smart, funny and incredibly inspiring read that is aesthetically-pleasing, feels good in the hands, and has a recipe for one of the easiest and tastiest desserts I have ever prepared: white bread, spread with butter and sugar, run under the broiler (or blow-torch) until it is brown and bubbly, and served in a pool of condensed milk and cream.
The authors are obviously responsible for much of the book’s originality and charm, but so too is the publisher—McSweeney’s Insatiables, which is also behind the fantastic Lucky Peach.
Myint, a line cook, and Leibowitz, a humanities scholar, were newlyweds when they decided to rent a taco cart (or “roach-coach”) and spend their Thursday evenings selling gourmet sandwiches like the PB&J (pork belly and jicama) and King Trumpet (mushroom, garlic confit and thrice-fried potatoes) from a street corner in San Francisco’s Mission district. They called the enterprise Mission Street Food.
Thinking that a handful of people might wander by, the couple were overwhelmed when on that first night, the line-up for sandwiches snaked around the block, assisted by the tweeting of a well-connected friend and a preponderance of food bloggers and culture vultures.
The story of Mission Street Food (and its current incarnation, Mission Chinese Food) has taken on epic proportions, assisted in part by this book, and by the plethora of food writers who have chronicled its journey from lowly food cart to, as Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times, one of the country’s three “hottest destination restaurants.” As legend goes, by month’s end, the crowds had become so enormous that some property-owning jerk had called the cops on them.
To avoid further hassles, and to be able to meet demand, Myint and Leibowitz did something that was pretty much unheard of at the time: they set up a kitchen-sharing arrangement with an unremarkable Chinese restaurant and started serving dinner there on Thursdays and Saturdays.
The book is structured as an oral history, interspersed with witty and articulate meditations on subjects as diverse as Popeye’s fried chicken, Orientalism, and the “sportification” of food. There is also an unnecessary but nevertheless charming graphic interpretation of the battle with J.J. Vanguard (the aforementioned jerk), an excellent primer on buying and preparing meat, and a dozen or so recipes for some of MSF’s most beloved dishes—I am particularly tempted by the marrow-stuffed squid, and friends have reported that the Brown Butter Financier, a light and crunchy almond cake, is excellent.
The book closes with a DIY guide for aspiring restauranteurs, but as our own Cookies Unite and Grumman’s Taco Truck make clear, the message has already been loudly and widely received.
Picking up Susan Semenak’s Market Chronicles: Stories & Recipes from Montreal’s Marché Jean-Talon after MissionStreet Food is like sitting down to dinner with your in-laws—especially if, like me, your in-laws happen to be fabulous cooks and passionate locavores—after a week on the road in the company of rockstars and hipster foodies; more grown-up, not quite as fun, but satisfying nonetheless.
Though primarily a cookbook—there are recipes with enticing images, though I cannot say whether they will produce the desired results—what resonates here are the short essays on the folks who grow and produce the magical bounty of food that greets you every time you visit. From Steven Finklestein, who sold chickens from his family farm before the market banned the sale of live animals, to the globe-trotting spice hunters, Ethné and Philippe de Vienne, the people whose stories enliven these pages are, as the book reminds us, part of our community; a community to be nurtured, sustained and celebrated. And who knows—with any luck, my Fish Chowder with mussels, shrimp and a chunk of Charles and James Henry Atkin’s smoked mackerel will taste as good as it looks.