Q&A: Danny Bowien on All Things Mission Cantina
Just up the block from Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien’s SF transplant (currently closed for renovations), lies Mission Cantina - a madcap taqueria that mixes Asian and Mexican flavors. Cantina has been open three weeks, and Bowien has been editing and refining the menu on an almost daily basis, offering a variety of tacos made with housemade tortillas, larger plates like a whole rotisserie chicken (drizzled in chicken fat and brown rice vinaigrette) and appetizers like scallop and beef heart ceviche (photo below).
But aside from what’s going on in the kitchen, the Mission Cantina space is having just as much fun as the menu. Bowien’s homage to '80s and '90s pop culture is everywhere; there's a giant Jenny McCarthy print above the stairwell, Menudo figurines along the side window and a Friends-themed bathroom downstairs. We stopped by just before service on a weekday afternoon to find out what inspired him to turn south-of-the-border with this new project.
Zagat: What inspired you to explore Mexican flavors with this menu?
DB: Maybe just curiosity and really enjoying the flavors of Mexican food, and wanting to dig deeper and teach ourselves how to make it. Since you know, I never worked in a Mexican restaurant. I think that we did Mission Chinese kind of on the same wavelength...we never made Chinese food and we started Mission Chinese, and it was the same thing with Cantina.
Zagat: What was the process like for you?
DB: It started as just sheer interest. I grew up in Oklahoma City eating a lot of Tex-Mex. And I lived in San Francisco for about ten years so I had a lot of Cal-Mexican which is a lot different than Mexican-Mexican.
Then we went to Mexico City and that changed everything for us there. We had intended on being a California Mexican restaurant but after going there and tasting fresh tortillas, that had a huge impact on the product here. We make our own masa which is a very labor intensive thing. We actually get corn in and treat it and grind it and make our own fresh masa. Once we started doing that the wheels started turning. We’ve only been open about a month but we’re really making it all into our own thing.
Zagat: How would you describe the food at Cantina - authentic Mexican, Mexican-Asian?
DB: With any of the type of foods that we make, whether it’s Chinese or Mexican, the important thing is to figure out the way to make something right before we put our twist on it. A lot of things you get here like the carnitas taco are very typical of how we ate it in Mexico. The pork is cooked in pork fat and served with crispy pork jowl, crispy pork skin. That’s very indicative of what we had going throughout Mexico. But then the rotisserie chicken is very different from that. So you can come here and have a bare bones authentic experience. But as we continue to change the menu, things continue to get weirder and cooler.
Zagat: Did you always have your sights set on this neighborhood, so close to Mission Chinese?
DB: It’s one of those places that had been on our list for awhile. It’s a little bigger than the other restaurant. It's a corner location which is very important. This space is very open, you can see the street and it’s light. We didn’t really look anywhere else. We had our eye on it for a long time.
Zagat: Do you feel at home in this neighborhood?
DB: I feel at home in the restaurant. I live close by, I walk to work everyday. I used to hang around here when I was like 20 years old. I wasn’t working as hard then as I did now. I think the cool thing about this location is a lot of people from the neighborhood are coming in and it’s a place you can come to any night of the week.
Zagat: You’re mixing a variety of Asian and Mexican flavors - any places where those cuisines naturally intersect?
DB: I would say the parallels that I’ve drawn with Mexican food are actually not really with Asian food so much. Mexican and Italian share a lot of similarities - just building depth of flavor with a few ingredients like using a sofrito, to making a and then creating a ragu or bolognese using 4-5 base ingredients, cooking them slowly. It's very similar in Mexican food whether you’re making a stew or a braise. I feel like those two cuisines are very familiar.
Asian food is a little bit different because Chinese for instance relies heavily on lots of soy sauce and other prepared products like chili paste etc. Here, there’s layers of clean flavor so if you get a tortilla with some really nice pork and some really acidic bright salsa - it’s almost like sushi - you can taste those three layers. We try to employ as much technique as possible in making things tasty but hopefully it’s not too technical and it just tastes like Mexican food.