Mission Street Food: Gourmet For Charity

San Francisco's Mission Street Food offers a gourmet experience, including duck pot pie and buttermilk panna cotta with cornbread and honey — all served just two nights a week from rented space in a Chinese restaurant. Profits go to charity. So far, the unusual venue is a big success.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

I'm Alex Cohen. The restaurant industry has not been faring well lately. Even in gourmet-friendly San Francisco, many establishments are shutting down, but there is one place that's thriving. The food is fancy, but the venue, not so much. Nishat Kurwa has the story.

Unidentified Woman: Would you like me to relight your candle, a little romance?

Unidentified Man: Sure.

Unidentified Woman: OK, I'll be right back with that.

NISHAT KURWA: The dining room is buzzing tonight at this family-style restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District. The 15 tables are packed with skinny-jean-clad young people. Some of them are sitting with strangers.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KURWA: It's almost as chaotic in the back.

Mr. CHRIS YANG(ph) (Cook, Mission Street Food): I guess this would be like the foyer of the kitchen or something, in like a sort of space that I don't think exists in non-Chinese restaurants.

KURWA: Chris Yang is a Mission Street Food line cook. He's part of a bustling culinary squad that inhabits this Chinese restaurant two nights a week.

Mr. ANTHONY MYINT (Founder, Mission Street Food): We're always adapting and trying to add an extra person here and there to make it go smoothly.

KURWA: That's Mission Street Food founder Anthony Myint. After working in restaurants for years, Myint wanted to serve up his own creations. He decided to try it one night a week by subletting a taco truck. Once you do away with the high overhead of a fining dining environment, voila! You can afford to lavish customers with fancy ingredients sourced from respected Bay Area farms and ranches. By the end of Myints' first night in the truck, there was a constant stream of food going out and orders coming in.

Mr. MYINT: Like the first week, we made around 80 sandwiches worth of food. And then the second week, I guess maybe around 120, I think even the third week. (Laughing) We still like didn't totally believe it.

KURWA: Novel noshing experiences don't stay a secret for long in this city of avid foodies. Overwhelmed by crowds, Myint began renting the Chinese place to serve up inexpensive decadence, like this menu he describes from a recent Dirty South night.

Mr. MYINT: We changed the standard pork belly and jicama sandwich that we did and served it with coleslaw and potato salad. There was shrimp and grits, and smoked duck beignets. And actually that night prompted us to serve a dessert which is sort of one of our favorites now. It's a buttermilk panna cotta with cornbread that's been fried in butter and drizzled with honey.

KURWA: Most of these mouthwatering dishes cost between six to eight bucks a pop, less than you'd pay for appetizers at the popular San Francisco restaurant where Myint worked full time as a line cook before he launched Mission Street Food.

Mr. MYINT: There's a little bit more of an Asian fusion-y feel to the food here, which may or may not be ideal, but I think it's fitting for the environment a little bit.

KURWA: It's an understatement to say Myint is reserved, a guy of painfully few words if you're trying to get him to talk about himself. His wife, Karen Leibowitz, is considerably more chatty.

Ms. KAREN LEIBOWITZ: Anthony's dream of this kind of conversation between kitchen and eater does correspond to my sense of him as an eater. So, when he does have the opportunity to fill out a comment card, he goes for it. He really annotates every dish.

KURWA: Leibowitz is a doctoral student in literature who also runs the Mission Street Food blog, really the only form of advertising for their cheap dining extravaganza. Still, Mission Street Food often sells out, which means Myint not only recoups all his costs but turns a profit.

Ms. LEIBOWITZ: It continues to sort of amaze us.

KURWA: After paying themselves a respectable hourly wage, Myint and Leibowitz donate the rest of the money to food-related charities.

Mr. MYINT: I kind of want the project to be like an overwhelming, smashing success in terms of profitability to the degree that other people copy the charitable model.

KURWA: The model that Myint calls a great marketing strategy, get customers to support restaurants that in turn benefit their communities.

Mr. MYINT: I think it would be kind of exciting if we could in some way be part of a movement where people went charitable to make more money.

KURWA: It's pretty idealistic to talk about spearheading a charitable movement at a time like this, a movement that depends on people's willingness to spend declining disposable income. And Myint's taking a gamble for sure. He just quit his full-time job to focus on his role as head chef here.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KURWA: But judging from the line out front where loyal diners will wait up to two hours for a meal, Mission Street Food looks like a good bet. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa.

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