New recipes

Mission Chinese Food Closed for Revamp and More News

Mission Chinese Food Closed for Revamp and More News


In today's Media Mix, Allrecipes Magazine released, plus Burger King to copy McDonald's once again

The popular restaurant will be reconstructed, Bowien says.

Check out these headlines you may have missed.

Danny Bowien Closes Mission Chinese: After the Department of Health shut down the New York outpost of his "weird Chinese" spot for the second time in three weeks, Bowien decided to shut down Mission Chinese for a revamp. [Eater]

Allrecipes Magazine: The new magazine from the popular recipe site launches with six issues a year. [Allrecipes]

Burger King's Big King: The chain is re-releasing the Big King, a burger with two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions, which sounds (and looks) exactly like a Big Mac. [AP]

Mushrooms Next Burger Trend: Apparently, mushroom-beef burgers are becoming more popular, as a 50/50 mushroom-beef blend was considered more flavorful and just as satiating as a 100 percent beef patty. [NPR]

Jimmy Fallon and Giada: Giada de Laurentiis made smoothies and such on Jimmy Fallon's show. [Eater]


WesBurger n' More | Mission District - San Francisco

Last night a parking space materialized during prime dinner hour on the block where Commonwealth, Mission Chinese Food, Duc Loi, and the new WesBurger n' More are located on Mission when I passed by. Reflexively I grabbed it. I opted for the newcomer, opened officially the night before. I ordered and paid at the counter, got my number, and had a choice of a booth, two-top or bar seating.

Does this neon look familiar? It's rumored to be from the now closed Joe's Cable Car in the Excelsior.
https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7128/78.

Felt strange not to go for a burger for my virgin visit, but the Nashville Hot chicken was calling me. Ordered as a plate with choice of two sides, the portion of three hulking big boneless chicken thighs for $13 is quite a deal.

Collard greens braised with diced tomatoes featured toothsome leaves cooked to tenderness but not mush. A touch of sweet, a little tangy, and not too salty. This was a great counterpoint to the spicy heat of the chicken.

Mac and cheese was made with pasta shells that were still a little firm. Grainy rather than a creamy style, but good and cheesey. Topped with some extra cheese and bread crumbs, mouthfuls of this also helped quell the fire.

The buttermilk fried chicken was extra crispy from what seems like some cornmeal in the batter. Juicy thigh meat, crunchy crusting, and fiery Nashville hot spicing set off a cascade of endorphins to satisfy and anesthetize from the pain.

There was a steady stream of customers and the kitchen seemed to have no trouble keeping up with the flow. Burgers passing by looked great, as did the various tater tot appetizers. For what sounds like a meatlover's dream, WesBurger is surprisingly vegetarian friendly, offering a homemade vege patty as a sub for any of the burger combos, a portobello Reuben, and a cauliflower wedge. With wine and beer as well, this should prove to be a regular gathering place for eaters of every stripe.

WesBurger 'N' More
2240 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 745-9371
Daily 5pm-10pm


Share All sharing options for: Mission Street Food's Myint and Leibowitz on Credible Recipes and Charitable Businesses

Welcome to Behind the Cookbook, a new series on Eater that looks at what goes into making a cookbook. Here now, part one in a five-part series on the first cookbook from McSweeney's food imprint, Mission Street Food by Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz (buy at Amazon). Warning: serious cookbook nerdery ahead.

[Photos courtesy McSweeney's]

Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz started the San Francisco food truck Mission Street Food in the fall of 2008, shortly after which they moved operations into a neighborhood Chinese restaurant on the nights it was closed. Their new cookbook tells the story of the restaurant, including its guest chefs, crazy theme menus, and charitable goals, and also shares some of its recipes. Below, a quick introduction to Myint and Leibowitz and their thoughts on the cookbook.

In one sentence, what was Mission Street Food?
Mission Street Food was a mirror into which the eaters of San Francisco could gaze deep into their own souls and find America staring back — also it was a twice-weekly pop-up restaurant that served a different menu each night, invited guest chefs to collaborate, and donated its profits to charity.

Why do a Mission Street Food Cookbook?
Mission Street Food raised a lot of interesting issues about what it means to be a restaurant, so that seemed to merit a wider discussion. We wanted to articulate our ideas about food, value, and values. And people were asking us for recipes anyway.

What did the writing process look like?
Our process was very collaborative. Even though most parts of the book are attributed to either "Anthony" or "Karen" we both worked on every sentence. Usually, one of us would draft a section and then we'd sit down together and thoroughly rewrite it, side by side at the computer. It was only after several tries to write the first section that we even settled on the back-and-forth format. During the production phase, we worked closely with our editor, Chris Ying, who devised an innovative layout for the recipes for which we reshaped the instructions into captions to accompany the step-by-step pictures. And of course, we worked collaboratively with our photographer, Alanna Hale, who not only styled the food but often provided the kitchen space where we worked. As a result, her dog snuck into a few shots.

The book seems to be divided evenly between the recipes and the story of the restaurant. Why go that route?
McSweeney's really encouraged us to disregard the boundaries of the genre. So we approached the book the same way we approached the restaurant itself — with no specific idea about how the finished product would turn out. There was a lot of tinkering. But these days, when a Google search yields 25,000,000 results for "steak recipe," we think the discerning reader wants something more — at least some context to help them decide whether or not a recipe is credible.

What makes for a credible recipe?
Following a recipe is easy. Choosing the right recipe is hard. Sometimes great chefs give advice that's too complex or oversimplified. Conversely, anonymous home cooks put amazing recipes on the Internet, but there's no way of knowing without taking the time to try them. We used the narrative to discuss our influences, inspirations, and mistakes, so that people can understand our thought processes and decide for themselves if the recipes are right for them. If you think all of our views about food and restaurants are nonsense, then in all likelihood you won't find our recipes useful either.

So who is the book aimed at? Home cooks? Professionals?
We wrote it for people who are interested in food — the book is not just for cooks, but also for enthusiastic eaters, or anyone curious about the restaurant industry — but to some extent, we also addressed the book to people who aren't particularly interested in food, but are looking for encouragement to launch their own projects, in any field. The book comes at Mission Street Food from a lot different angles, so hopefully, there's something in it for different kinds of people.

How do you think people will use the book?
We'd like to think that people will sit down and read the book for pleasure it's probably not the kind of book you'd pick up at 5:30 to help you figure out what to make for dinner. Both the narrative and the food sections emphasize the importance of planning ahead and thinking strategically about your ingredients — using stock and fat gleaned from one meal as a component in the next, for instance. Probably the best-case scenario would be if home cooks added a handful of accessible techniques to their repertoire, and if professional cooks reconsidered a couple of traditional approaches.

I know your restaurants (Commonwealth and Mission Chinese Food) work with charities. What groups are they working with now?
Right now, we're working with two different charitable models. Commonwealth donates $10 from each tasting menu to different charities each month, whereas Mission Chinese Food gives 75 cents from each entrée to the SF Food Bank. We visited a lot of food pantries in San Francisco and discovered that they all depend on the Food Bank, so we thought it made sense to focus our contributions on them. The scale and efficiency of their operation is amazing — they have these enormous bags of rice that literally weigh a ton.

Are you following that same model with the cookbook?
We tried to carry some of the principles of a charitable business model over to book sales. We figured if we gave some of the profits to a nonprofit, they'd help promote the book, and we'd feel better about cutting down trees to print essays on the sportification of cooking. So we're working with Slow Food USA, and hopefully contributing to food reform. But so far, they haven't really been promoting the fundraiser very much, which makes us feel okay about continuing to eat Pringles.

Last question: what do you think Mission Street Food's legacy will be?
Hard to say. On some level, it was just a flash in the pan, but it probably encouraged a more flexible approach to restaurants in general. We were part of a larger trend toward a democratization of fine dining in America, but we have yet to see a lot of new places trying to recreate our unique blend of crappy kitchen, crappy dining room, crappy service, and crappy bathroom. We would be excited to see more restaurants adopting a charitable
business model, though.


Michelin-Starred Chef&rsquos Simple Recipe for Great Chinese Food at Home

(Bloomberg) -- Chef Andrew Wong serves some of the finest Chinese food in Europe at his Michelin-starred A Wong restaurant in London.

Beautifully plated dishes, rather than traditional platters, show just how far Chinese restaurants have evolved in the city since his parents owned an establishment on the same site when he was growing up in the 1980s. The Westernized versions of Cantonese classics have been replaced by cooking that is modern and innovative, yet respects regional cuisines and honors tradition.

Right now, the restaurant is closed because of the coronavirus lockdown, so you are going to have to wait if you want to try his £108 ($137) Taste of China menu, featuring dishes such as Chengdu street tofu, soy chili, peanuts, preserved vegetables braised abalone, shiitake mushroom, sea cucumber and abalone butter and soy chicken with ginger oil and Oscietra caviar wrap.

But he has offered Bloomberg readers a simple recipe using everyday ingredients for a delicious dish: Salt and pepper Cantonese chicken. I tried it at home reasonably successfully, which indicates that it is close to idiot-proof. (Though I did manage to forget one ingredient — sesame seeds — and you should slice open a chicken cube to be sure it isn’t pink before serving.)

Wong says the flavor profile is common to many Chinese dishes, so it evokes memories for the diner. The origins might lie in Sichuan but it’s also a favorite of Hong Kong cooks. He says the baking powder and the cornflour help to break down the protein and absorb flavors, for moistness and a velvety texture.

I’ve seen much more complex recipes online, some featuring dry sherry. Wong laughs at this and says chefs in the U.K. sometimes used sherry years ago because they couldn’t obtain Chinese rice wine, which is now available in supermarkets. He says it is fine to add a tablespoon of Shaoxing wine toward the end of cooking if you like. Even without it, I found this dish delicious.

200 grams (7 ounces) of cubed chicken breast

One sliced, mild red chili

Two teaspoons of crushed garlic

One spring onion, cut into 1 cm (0.4 inch) cross sections

Salt and pepper to taste (but be generous)

1. Marinate the chicken overnight. (It helps if you massage the liquid into the chicken for two minutes at the start.)

2. The next day, coat the meat in cornflour.

3. Fry on high for about four minutes until crisp. (Best with vegetable oil I used sesame oil, which Wong said was wrong.)

4. In another heated pan, fry the chili and garlic on high for a minute.

5. Add the chicken and spring onion and cook for another three minutes.

6. Season with fine salt and lots of black pepper — about half a teaspoon of each — plus chili flakes if required.

7. Serve in a dish and sprinkle sesame seeds and half a teaspoon of sesame oil on top.


Dish after dish misses the mark at Mission Chinese Food

4 of 26 Tea-smoked eel--pulled ham hock, chinese celery, rice noodle--made at Chinese Mission Food in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

5 of 26 Sous chef Jesse Koide (left) and Danny Bowien (right) have a meeting at Chinese Mission Food before going to the kitchen in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

7 of 26 Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese Food is profiled in Edible Selby (Abrams October 2012). Todd Selby/Edible Selby Show More Show Less

8 of 26 Co-founder Anthony Myint takes over half the kitchen while cooking at Mission Street Food which converts at night in the Lung Shan Restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco photographed on Thursday, February 12, 2009. Eric Luse/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

10 of 26 Danny Bowien, chef at Mission Chinese Food, one of six bay area rising star chefs stands for a portrait at the Edible Schoolyard on the Martin Luther King Middle School campus on Tuesday Feb. 22, 2011 in Berkeley, Calif. Mike Kepka/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

11 of 26 Chinese Mission Food restaurant beginning to open for dinner in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

13 of 26 Chinese Mission Food restaurant staff pose in front of their restaurant in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

14 of 26 Warm egg custard--chicken confit, hokkaido scallop, chrysanthemum, winter melon consomme--made at Chinese Mission Food in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

16 of 26 Westlake rice porridge--oxtail, dungeness crab, soft-cooked egg, rice paddy herb--made at Chinese Mission Food in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

17 of 26 Ma po tofu--ground kurobuta pork shoulder, szechuan peppercorn, chili oil, dungeness crab, served with steamed rice--made at Chinese Mission Food in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

19 of 26 Tea-smoked eel--pulled ham hock, chinese celery, rice noodle--made at Chinese Mission Food in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

20 of 26 Salt cod fried rice--escolar confit, chinese sausage, egg, scallion--made at Chinese Mission Food in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 25, 2011. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle Show More Show Less

22 of 26 Chef Danny Bowien is photographed at his restaurant, Mission Chinese, at its New York City location on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in New York, NY. Angela Jimenez/Special to The Chronicle Show More Show Less

23 of 26 A lunch crowd waits for tables outside of Chef Danny Bowien's restaurant, Mission Chinese, at its New York City location on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in New York, NY. Angela Jimenez/Special to The Chronicle Show More Show Less

25 of 26 Chef Danny Bowien's restaurant, Mission Chinese, is photographed at its New York City location on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in New York, NY. Angela Jimenez/Special to The Chronicle Show More Show Less

Danny Bowien, who opened Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco about four years ago, came up with his innovative restaurant concept based on his love of the Chinese dives he frequented after his grueling cooking shifts at places like Bar Tartine and Farina.

He and Anthony Myint formed a partnership with the owners of Lung Shan, a rundown Chinese restaurant on Mission Street, creating a kind of co-op for his new concept.

Because of the unique qualities of the arrangement - and his explosive take on traditional Chinese food using a combination of Western and Eastern techniques - Bowien quickly developed a devoted following and loads of national press.

In 2012, he took his concept to New York and opened a second wildly popular branch the city's Department of Health closed it for pest-related issues in November and it has yet to reopen.

He's reportedly looking for a new space in New York, but in the meantime he's running his second restaurant there, Mission Cantina, where he's doing a remake of the classic taqueria.

He is a master at reformulating flavors he loves into bold dishes that shock the palate, surprise the taste buds and unfold in layers. It's why Mission Chinese earned three stars for food on my initial review even though the decor could only muster one star.

For his efforts on both coasts he captured the James Beard Rising Star Chef award last May. He's clearly a chef with a lot of talent.

However, I learned on a revisit this week that without him in the kitchen, the San Francisco Mission Chinese is simply a dive, without the charm his inventive and soulful food gave it.

Fading vision

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 hadn't ever tried the braised pea leaves ($12), but coming off one of the best versions I've ever eaten, at Hong Kong Lounge II, I was excited to see what Mission Chinese would do with these delicate greens.

I knew they would be different by the dragon flame marker on the menu, along with the description that the dish contained "pumpkin, pressed tofu, salted chili broth." But, the key word I overlooked was "broth."

The dish was like a soup with only a few handfuls of shoots, shavings of crisp squash, tofu that looked like fat noodles and a broth that was so lackluster it tasted like the dried chile soaking water.

Dish after dish missed the mark, including tea-smoked eel ($9.50), soft noodle rolls with seafood, braised pork, a stalk of fibrous Chinese celery and barely a hint of the salted plum hoisin or the cognac soy that would have lifted the combination out of the doldrums.


Mission Chinese Food Closed for Revamp and More News - Recipes

The dining room at Mission Chinese New York

UPDATE: Mission Chinese has closed since I wrote this article. Chef Danny Bowien is looking for a new space to re-open. In the meantime, you can check out his newly opened Mission Cantina.

For the first in a long time, I traveled to New York City with no reservations (yes, that is indeed a reference to Anthony Bourdain). It was a spontaneous, long-weekend trip and I didn’t take the time to make any reservations at any restaurant. Although I wouldn’t get to eat at some of the more well-known spots on my ever-growing NYC-eats list, it felt nice not to be bound by any plan.

I did take the time to check out Mission Chinese Food‘s website before leaving, only to realize that they didn’t accept reservations, which meant that I had the chance to dine there after all.

Smashed cucumbers, salted chili, sesame paste, garlic

Egg, egg noodle, soft hen egg, scallions

The tiny, unpretentious, basement restaurant has acquired a great reputation and counts many food celebrities and chefs among its fans. The façade is so plain that our cab driver – and we – almost missed the entrance. After about an hour’s wait (you can go next door for a drink after you put your name down on the list), we were led along a grungy, underground corridor which runs the length of the kitchen area to exit into the dining room. The decor is plain, red and includes a small bar area with high tables on one side and a slightly larger dining area on the other. The bar area’s ceiling boasts one of those inflatable Chinese dragon balloons while the dining room’s ceiling is “decorated” with hanging extra wooden chairs waiting to be put to use and a few, round, paper lighting fixtures. A couple of large communal tables and a few smaller ones are packed in tightly.

Polynesian pork spare ribs, soy caramel, toasted coconut, macadamia, pineapple pickles and a cherry on top!

Chongqing chicken wings, explosive chili, crispy bits of deep-fried beef tripe

The menu is divided into small dishes and large ones and everything we ordered that night was delicious, including the cocktails. We started with the smashed cucumbers, which were refreshing and necessary as it turned out to put out some of the heat of the other dishes. We also ordered the caramelized, sticky-sweet, fall-of-the-bone Polynesian pork spare ribs served with pickled pineapples and a cherry on top! However, if I have to recommend an absolute must-have dish, I would actually recommend two: the thrice cooked bacon and the Chongqing chicken wings. The thrice cooked bacon includes Shanghainese rice cakes that could easily be mistaken for sliced potatoes until you bite into one. The soft, chewy and sweet cakes contrast with the crispy, salty bacon and the spiciness of the chili oil to create a perfect bite every time. And the wings, what can I say about the wings? They arrive covered in chili peppers and dotted with crispy bits of delicious deep-fried tripe. These wings are probably the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten, but they are also sweet, with an incredible complexity of flavour. My mouth, lips, throat, in fact, my whole face was on fire for about 10 minutes after the first wing… but I wanted more! The second one doesn’t feel as spicy and then they become deliciously addictive. If you can’t handle spicy food, these are definitely not for you. If you can like I do, they will become an instant favourite and you will crave them forever more, like I have every day since I’ve had them.

All photos © Nabil el Khayal

Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard Street (between Rivington & Stanton)
+1 212 529 8800

Opening hours:
Lunch 12pm – 3pm
Dinner 5:30pm – 12am


23 Dishes That Are So Hot Right Now

Ever since Sriracha exploded a few years ago, the amount of spicy food on any given restaurant menu has reached new heights. Changing consumer tastes and changing demographics have called for more fiery foods and restaurants are spicing up their offerings. Think about it -- when was the last time you were in a restaurant that didn't have hot sauce on hand?

From arrabbiata pasta at your favorite Italian spot to sushi drizzled in spicy sauce to Mexican drinks with a jalapeño kick, spicy lovers can find menu options that are packing the heat at restaurants of every cuisine. Shudder at the thought of eating hot foods? Try a couple bites of one of these dishes next time you're out -- increased tolerance develops with repeated exposure! Here's 23 dishes that'll spice up your next night out:

Photo provided by Mission Chinese Food.

Sichuan and Northern Chinese cuisines are known to be fiery and mouth-numbing and many of the delicious dishes at Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food support that reputation. Among the hottest dishes on the menu are the chicken wings -- prepared as Chongqing-style dry fried chicken -- which are tossed with a Sichuan peppercorn-based spice mixture and buried in an abundance of red peppers.

Photo provided by ROOT. Photo by Brent Herrig.

A staple on great Italian menus, a charcuterie plate offers something for individuals of all spice tolerant levels, revealing smoky, spicy and salty flavors depending on the cured meat selection. ROOT's platter includes a mild Pomegranate Lonza, as well as a Napolitana salumi (cold cut) that blends hot pepper and paprika for a spicy touch.

As is common at Mexican restaurants, Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar lets you drink, not just eat, your spice cravings. One cocktail that packs the heat is its diablo margarita made with Lunazul Reposado (tequila aged in wooden barrels between two and twelve months), serrano chiles (a spicier, smaller version of the jalapeño pepper), blood oranges, pineapple and strawberry.

Photo provided by Status Kuo.

An Asian twist on classic pub grub, the wings at Status Kuo are doused in gochujang, a piquant Korean fermented chile paste, and served with a side of tofu "blue cheese." Made from chili peppers, sticky rice, fermented soybeans and salt, gochujang isn't a finishing sauce like sriracha or tabasco -- it's too aggressive -- and is generally cut with something like soy sauce, sesame oil or sugar during cooking.

Photo provided by Carbone.

One of the most Instagrammed restaurants dishes, the spicy vodka rigatoni at Carbone is as delicious as it looks, prepared with onion soubise (béchamel sauce with added onion purée), classic cream, pecorino, tomatoes and Calabrian chiles. A popular ingredient in Italian cuisine, Calabrian chili peppers are spicy and aromatic, a great match for pizza, pasta, stews and soups.

Photo provided by Fat Rice.

Macanese hot spot Fat Rice features a number of dishes denoted with the spicy symbol, including the piri piri chicken, a char grilled half bird with spicy tomato sauce. Influenced by Portuguese flavors, piri piri sauce is made from crushed chilies, lemon juice, oil and red peppers, among other varying ingredients.

Photo provided by Tiger Mama.

Spice lovers rejoice! The list of ingredients in the octo papaya salad at Tiger Mama includes sushi-grade tako (tentacle of the octopus), green papaya, tomatoes, peanuts and "hot hot chilis." Known for preparing fiery dishes, Southeast Asian cuisine used peppercorn to spice up its fare long before the discovery of chili peppers.

Photo provided by Vedge. Photo by Michael Spain Smith.


A number of dishes at Vedge pack the heat, including the spicy ssamjang tofu with edamame puree and roasted miso, as well as the pole beans with kimchee, peanut and cilantro. Though kimchee, a traditional fermented Korean side dish made of vegetables, can be prepared with a variety of seasonings, it generally tends to carry a kick.

From the jalapeno crema on the carne asada tacos to the tomatillo and habanero salsa on the braised pork carnitas, the dishes at Mexican eatery Copita in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, are packing a punch.

Photo provided by Plan Check.

One of many tasty burgers on the comforting American menu, the chef's favorite burger at Plan Check is prepared with cheese two ways, bacon two ways, the restaurant's signature ketchup leather (dehydrated ketchup strips), a sunny fried egg and hot sauce. Though Tabasco sauce is the earliest recognizable brand in the United States hot sauce industry, appearing in 1868, there are a myriad of brands now on the market since the spicy, chili pepper condiment took America by storm years ago.

A beloved dish in Cajun country, the gumbo at Tupelo consists of smoked andouille sausage (a spicy, heavily smoked sausage made from pork chitterlings and tripe), pulled chicken and fresh okra.

Photo provided by The Lucky Bee.

Essential ingredients in Thai fare (known to be one of the hottest cuisines) include curry paste as well as fresh and dried chile peppers. The tuna tartare at The Lucky Bee lives up to the cuisine's reputation, making for a spicy small plate prepared with roast chili, shallot, lime and popped wild rice.

Photo provided by Kyirisan.

Combining chef Tim Ma's Chinese ancestry and French training, the wings at Kyrisan are prepared with creme fraiche (a thicker, richer, less tangy sour cream popular in French cuisine), oyster sauce and chili paste, which adds fiery flavor to the dish.

Photo by Jason Varney. Photo provided by Vernick.

Even for spice lovers, a tour of the toasts is a must at Vernick, a New American eatery serving lightly grilled sourdough slices with eight inventive ingredient combinations, including avocado with spicy radish and beef tartare with fresh horseradish.

Getting its heat from fresh red peppers like Fresno or serrano chiles, plus red pepper flakes, a spicy, brothy bowl of the Portuguese Fisherman's Stew with shrimp, scallop, clams, Maine mussels, white fish, chorizo, peppers and onions will make you feel right at home no matter the season.

Photo provided by Pizzeria Delfina.

Seasonally available at Pizzeria Delfina in Palo Alto and Burlingame, the crazy melon salad features an assortment of the summer's best melons tossed with chili (where you get that kick!), mint, extra virgin olive oil and feta.

Photo provided by Mercadito.

The chile relleno is stuffed with shrimp, chihuahua and oaxaca cheeses, and roasted tomato-chile de arbol salsa. The quintessential red salsa can range in spice level depending on how many potent, tree-like Mexican chili peppers, known as chile de arbol, are used.

Photo provided by Le Virtu. Photo by Joe Cicala.

A popular dish in Southern Italy, the maccheroni alla mugnaia at Le Virtu is prepared as one 60-foot single-strand, a hand-pulled piece of pasta with garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, hot pepper and pecorino.

Photo provided by Ditch Plains.

Adding a punch to the fan favorite dish, Ditch Plains serves its calamari with spicy aioli, typically made from mayonnaise, Sriracha, paprika, garlic, lime zest and juice and a pinch salt. A good match, Sriracha is frequently used as a dipping sauce for seafood.

Photo provided by Kin Khao. Photo by Eric Wolfinger.


Living up to its namesake, the pretty hot wings at Thai restaurant Kin Khao are prepared with Nam Pla fish sauce, garlic marinade, tamarind and Sriracha glaze. Sriracha is very popular in Thai cuisine, having originated in the Chonburi Province of eastern Thailand in the 1930s.

A popular dish in Chinese-American restaurants, Mongolian beef is quickly tossed with onions and scallions and typically prepared with Hoisin sauce, soy sauce and chili peppers to give it a kick.

Photo provided by Juniper.

The lamb bolognese at Juniper, made with handmade saffron pappardelle, roasted tomato sauce and yogurt, is given a nice, warm flavor with the addition of chili oil, a common ingredient added to the Italian dish on a Mediterranean menu.

Photo provided by Whetstone Tavern. Photo by Vanessa Beahn.

Whether you prefer medium spice or heavy spice, Whetstone delivers, offering its chicken wings in either a bourbon-infused hot sauce or a kung pao sauce with mild, Asian-inspired flavors.

For all the latest on food, drinks and restaurants, visit the Reserve blog and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


Chef Danny Bowien doesn’t care that you have a problem with his Arizona Iced Tea deal

One night in November 2012, I stood in the media line for a party launching the Uniqlo pop-up store in San Francisco. It was the Tokyo-based retailer’s first shop on the West Coast. It called for a dazzling premiere, with food and drinks and a star big enough to get a couple hundred mostly young, style-thirsty San Franciscans to line up in the chill. The biggest star that night was a chef: Danny Bowien.

Bowien, who’s Korean American, had become famous as the mad creative genius behind Mission Chinese Food. Earlier that year he’d moved east to open a second Mission Chinese, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was the hottest chef in New York City, maybe even the country, and Uniqlo pitched its party as the return of a prodigal hero. On a temporary stage that night, against a backdrop of Uniqlo’s fall-winter collection, Bowien anchored a chefs panel that included Tartine’s Chad Robertson and Bar Agricole’s Brandon Jew (now of Mister Jiu’s).

Bowien had also signed a deal to be a Uniqlo fashion ambassador -- a model, essentially. In promo materials for the debut, he had long black hair tipped with chestnut streaks, oversized glasses, a sour-yellow puffy jacket and a tennis cap with an oversized bill, embodying a marketing pitch that said even geeky normcore basic could become fashion if you flexed hard enough. The implied message that night, to a mostly Asian American audience, was that owning your look is the ultimate act of empowerment.

This week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells took Bowien to task for the chef’s latest display of corporate synergy, a monthlong embrace of beverage brand Arizona Iced Tea at Mission Chinese’s Brooklyn branch. The restaurant is offering four menu items that contain one of Arizona’s flavors: a green tea noodle dish, mango fried rice, a tequila cocktail, and a Grapeade gelatin dessert topped with Arizona fruit snacks. That last dish costs 99 cents — the price of one of Arizona’s 23-ounce cans, unchanged since the 1990s, when the New York–based beverage company launched.

In fact, Arizona’s tagline is “Great Buy! 99 Cents.” Its gas station/convenience store cans are splashed with designs so outsized they’re almost campy: an orientalist pink-and-turquoise fantasy of cherry blossoms for its green tea drink, and cheesy gift-shop Southwestern in gaudy desert-sunset colors for everything else.

And now, according to Eater, Mission Chinese restaurant in Bushwick “is decked out in Arizona decor created by the brand, including a neon ‘99¢ GREAT BUY’ sign and custom glassware with the word ‘Mission’ done up like the Arizona logo.”

Wells, considered the most powerful restaurant critic in the world, sees this synergy as Bowien’s shameless embrace of a mass-market brand.

“People for whom the word ‘hustle’ has lost all of its negative connotations may well admire Mr. Bowien for making a deal,” Wells wrote, “not quite realizing that what he has sold is access to their heads.”

In his article, “This Menu is Brought to You by Arizona Iced Tea,” he noted that the restaurant was giving away cross-branded cocktail cups and chopsticks to customers who ordered one of the Arizona menu items on a recent evening he went on to criticize the endorsement deal for promoting a brand with unhealthy products.

“Each 23-ounce can of those flavors,” Wells wrote, “which Mission Chinese Food now stocks in a help-yourself refrigerator just inside the front door in Bushwick, contains about 70 grams of sugar.” And he cites the neighborhood’s higher-than-average rates of obesity and diabetes.

On Wednesday night, on a call from Seoul where he’s cooking a collaborative dinner with the local Tartine Bakery and Thai-food chef David Thompson, Bowien offered his first public reaction to the article.

“It wasn’t as calculated as it sounds in that piece,” Bowien said of his Arizona collaboration. Last year, the beverage company opened a pop-up boutique in SoHo in Manhattan, with a ’90s-style fashion line that picked up the colors and motifs of its drink cans: Nike Air Jordans, cherry-blossom fanny packs, snapbacks in eye-blistering shades of fuchsia and yellow. Bowien thought the way Arizona merged street-wear with the graphic elements from its cans was awesome. At the pop-up, he met the owners (Arizona is privately held), Spencer and Wesley Vultaggio, and their father, company co-founder Don Vultaggio, and told them: “I think it’s cool what you do. Let’s do something. Let’s collaborate this summer.

“We picked up the conversation a few months ago,” Bowien continued, “and we’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s do an event. Let’s do some merch. Let’s design a menu.’ My original thought was let’s make everything on the menu 99 cents. For me, it was a great opportunity to have some fun, not for business. I got to where I am now because I was a good line cook, not because I was a good businessperson.”

Chefs need to make decisions for themselves and not be afraid of critical reviews. A couple of years ago this would have shaken me to my core.

Bowien bristled at being painted a corporate sellout, when he sees himself as a chef who wants to use an accessible brand as a way to break down the elitist barriers of bougie restaurant culture.

“The idea with Arizona was we wanted to do a value meal,” Bowien said. “I grew up in Oklahoma, eating at fast-food restaurants. Most chefs still have a soft spot for fast food. That was the idea about all of it. I wanted to broaden our reach.”

“I wasn’t making this for critics. I was making this for everybody. That’s what Mission Chinese Food started from, a pop-up in San Francisco. I was just like, I don’t even want to do this fine dining thing anymore. And all the chefs I worked for hated what they were doing too. On their day off they would go eat food that was affordable, and approachable for most people.”

As for the collaboration deal, Bowien said Arizona paid Mission Chinese Food a development fee for the four new menu items, to cover labor and ingredient costs. And the company bought out the restaurant for a launch party. In other words, the financial benefit was small for the restaurant, whose regular menu items include $16 hot garlic eggplant, $22 broccoli beef brisket and $28 coconut shrimp fried rice.

Bowien suggested he was being taken down for not following some unspoken code of restaurant rules, for being populist without first bowing down to the fine-dining restaurant establishment.

“When we moved to New York,” Bowien said, “I really did try to play for the critics. Everyone else was happy when we were selling $100 prime ribs, but I wasn’t happy. The long game for me is having a brand that’s very affordable, that crosses over.”

Fortunately, Bowien said, the rules seem to be changing. Chefs can reach directly for younger audiences without having to follow any kind of playbook. “Look at fashion,” he said, “how brands are doing collaborations with other brands. There’s this old guard that says you have to be haute couture or you’re not one of us: You have to do your haute couture first, then you can do your street-wear line. I’ve played that game and tried to do what made everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy.”

He feels the Wells piece, much like the critic’s infamous blasting of Guy Fieri in a 2012 zero-star review of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square, was a takedown of a chef with the audacity to craft a populist message.

“It’s really elitist to call people out,” Bowien said. “The time of the Guy Fieri takedown piece is over. Yeah, I laughed about it at the time, along with everyone else. But I have a 5-year-old son. I see it as bullying now, just like the bullying I experienced in fine dining kitchens.”

“Chefs need to make decisions for themselves and not be afraid of critical reviews,” Bowien said. “A couple of years ago this would have shaken me to my core. I quit drinking six years ago, and I quit doing drugs two years ago. Luckily, I feel a lot stronger now.”

That’s why I didn’t do clapbacks after I read that piece. I’m tired of living in fear. I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself.

Chefs have long entered into commercial deals to lend their names to supermarket frozen foods or pasta sauces, say, or a line of cooking tools or appliances. In the last few years, even some high-end chefs have begun calling out branded products on their menus, as they do with farms and cheese makers (New York chef Daniel Boulud, for instance, has mentioned Hodo Soy tofu on the menu at Restaurant Daniel).

Bowien’s alliances to a clothing giant and, now, his melding of restaurant and popular gas station iced tea, is unusual. Can chefs, who work in a notoriously low-margin industry, be blamed for these sorts of corporate arrangements? In L.A., Kogi founder Roy Choi has been heavily promoting his brand partnerships. He did one with now-defunct meal delivery service Munchery, and more recently teamed with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and KeVita last summer, infusing the kombucha brand’s Apple Cider Vinegar Tonic Turmeric Ginger into a miso spinach salad and using its tart cherry flavor in a cauliflower adobo bowl at his now-closed Chego in Chinatown.

Bowien thinks he’s being singled out because he bucked the unspoken rules about how a respected chef is supposed to behave. “That’s why I didn’t do clapbacks after I read that piece,” Bowien said. “I’m tired of living in fear. I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself. ”

And what about the charge that Mission Chinese is promoting obesity and diabetes by collaborating with Arizona Iced Tea? Bowien suggested the concern was selective, again singling out mass-market brands while giving high-end restaurants a pass.

“We all know how much butter is in food in restaurants,” Bowien said. “It’s up to the customer. They can choose for themselves.”

On Friday morning, Wells largely declined to elaborate further on his article. But the critic did want to dispute the notion that he was calling out a chef for pushing caloric, sugary drinks, saying there was no double standard.

“Almost every restaurant I go to serves Coca-Cola,” Wells said. “Simply selling a high-fructose corn syrup drink was not what this piece was about.”

Bowien, meanwhile, said what he’s selling is value.

“I believe in breaking the system that says a certain type of cuisine or price point should be frowned on, or thought of as lesser,” he said. “And that’s how Mission Chinese started.”

Just like he did on the stage at Uniqlo in San Francisco in 2012, Danny Bowien is owning his look. Which, for the rest of this month, is in the vivid teals, pinks and yellows from cans of Arizona Iced Tea.


Why Chile Oil is Trending

Back in 2011, shortly after taking ownership of the 100-year-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Wilson Tang wanted to sell jars of branded chile oil. But his first batch did not meet the labeling requirements for bottled products according to the Department of Health, and he shelved the idea in order to focus on the restaurant’s bread and butter: in-house diners.

Nearly 10 years later, Tang came back around to the idea. “We had everything ready to launch right before we closed up operations for COVID-19,” says Tang. He released Nom Wah’s first batch of chile oil on the restaurant’s webstore, and it sold out within hours. Once operations are back up and running, Tang hopes to sell the product again, in Nom Wah restaurants and online.

Today, he finds himself in the company of other restaurants and small businesses selling a signature bright vermilion, sediment-thick chile oil. Tang says he was even inspired by fellow young, New York-based entrepreneurs, including Eric Sze of 886 and Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen, who each offer branded chile oil that was for sale in their restaurants’ physical locations before they closed to in-house diners due to the coronavirus. (Sze Daddy, the chile oil from 886, was available online but has sold out Junzi’s chile oil can still be purchased online.) San Francisco’s acclaimed Chinese restaurant Mr. Jiu’s has its own Chile Crisp Sauce, part of a lineup of sauces in partnership with Williams-Sonoma. Jason Wang, owner of the New York City chain Xi’an Famous Foods, which specializes in the cuisine of the western Chinese province of Shaanxi, also recently began to sell signature chile oil packets, by popular demand.

“I saw someone drinking it once,” says Wang, of his chile oil, before he made the decision to sell the packets separately. “People were saying, ‘I’m going to send this to my friend across the country.’” All locations of Xi’an Famous Foods are currently closed due to the coronavirus, but the chile oil can still be purchased online.

None of these business owners could have predicted that their chile oils would become vestiges of an experience that’s no longer available — dining at their establishment — for the lucky customers who bought them. They were intended to leave visitors with a lingering aftertaste and remind them to come back soon. According to Sze, who estimates that 886 sold about 60 jars per week when it was open, “A lot of people finish their meal and are like, ‘I’ll take a jar.’”

Now, as the timeline for reopening remains blurry, retail items from restaurants have become a hot ticket, and shelf-stable chile oils have been anointed a pandemic pantry must-have for those longing to give their home-cooked creations a whiff of spicy-restaurant nostalgia. But what is chile oil? What does it have to do with “chile crisp”? And why is everyone seemingly crazy for spicy, chunky, oily hot sauce in the first place?

When it comes to chile oil — or “chile crisp” — the first thing that pops into many people’s minds nowadays is Lao Gan Ma, a mass-produced, Chinese brand of chile sauce that’s gained a cult following in the United States. Inexpensive and widely available, its Spicy Chili Crisp condiment in particular — which some fans simply call Lao Gan Ma — is so popular that it’s increasingly seen as a benchmark for oil-based chile condiments, and the prototype that some restaurants have looked to to set their versions against. “Lao Gan Ma has too much of a monopoly. We wanted to offer something a little different,” says Sze.

The Chinese chile sauce brand Lao Gan Ma makes a spicy chili crisp. Lao Gan Ma [official]

However, there is some confusion over what exactly “chile crisp” means, and if it’s an entirely different type of product from chile oil, or a variation. “I’ve actually had Chinese friends who were like, ‘What’s chile crisp? Oh, it’s chile oil?’” says Lisa Cheng-Smith, founder of Yun Hai, an exporter of small-batch sauces from Taiwan. A condiment from a small Sichuan-Taiwanese maker called Su Spicy Chili Crisp was the first product available through her ecommerce business, and its best-seller. And while it’s been made for generations, Cheng-Smith gave it a new, English name for its U.S. debut. “I didn’t start calling it ‘chile crisp’ until I started selling it. I always just called it ‘chile oil,’” says Cheng-Smith.

“Lao Gan Ma has five different products, and only one is called Spicy Chili Crisp,” says Jenny Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, a brand of Sichuan ingredients with a signature product called Sichuan Chili Crisp. She says that she was taking cues from other references of the term “chili crisp” when she decided to name her product Sichuan Chili Crisp — in particular, a recipe for chile crisp in the Mission Chinese Food cookbook, published in 2015. That recipe, by Danny Bowien and Chris Ying, is inspired by Lao Gan Ma, “our favorite brand of the stuff,” the authors write. But it’s also a two-part recipe for “Chili Crisp and Chili Oil,” whereby the latter is produced simply by straining out the solids from the infused oil.

Products called “chile crisp” as opposed to chile oil typically have a higher ratio of particles in them than oil. Those particles are the chile flakes (and often garlic, shallots and any number of other ingredients and spices) that are sizzled in the oil to infuse it, becoming crispy in the process. This textural component is what many find irresistible about Sichuan Chili Crisp, Spicy Chili Crisp, and similar high-particle oils. They’re also typically seasoned with salt, soy sauce, MSG, and occasionally fish sauce or other savory agents like fermented black beans.

“I consider chile oil like soy sauce, in that it’s a cooking ingredient,” says Gao. “I view the chunky Spicy Chili Crisp from Lao Gan Ma and my Sichuan Chili Crisp as a condiment — I rarely cook with it I use it as a topping.”

But in reality, these roles are not so strict, and one person’s idea of a cooking ingredient may be another’s condiment. “You can cook with dried chile pepper flakes and you can also just scatter it on pizza,” says Gao.

“Chile crisp”-labeled oils can still vary a lot in taste, too Cheng-Smith thinks that Lao Gan Ma’s Spicy Chili Crisp is saltier and more laden with MSG than others — the product is “good in a junk food-y way.”

But whether it’s called a crisp or an oil, the idea of a spicy, chile-based topping that isn’t a vinegar-based sauce has little precedent in the U.S. For generations, when Americans wanted to kick up their entrees with a little extra heat, they dabbled thin, red droplets of a pepper sauce. There are thousands of sauces like this: cayenne- or habanero-based red, green, or yellow with the addition of fruit for balance or adorned with grim reapers on their labels. And while fierce proponents of Crystal and Frank’s Red Hot may argue about how much these sauces differ, when it comes to the general style, they don’t.

The taste for vinegar-based chile sauce is, of course, not just limited to Americans. The Southeast Asian chile sauce sambal olek is similarly bright and tangy, with a smack of fresh garlic, although it’s chunky in composition. Sriracha, a smoother, thicker, sweeter chile sauce created by a Vietnamese American in California, is also vinegar-based, with no oil to speak of.

A chile condiment that is not only oily but earthy, toasty, and cooked rather than highly acidic and fresh-tasting is still something of a novelty, found in Asian groceries or from the beloved restaurants that sell theirs. Walk down a typical American supermarket’s hot sauce aisle and you probably won’t find anything like it.

But as Tang saw it, with Chinese food more mainstream than ever, the time was right to sell Nom Wah chile oil. And, as he and other restaurateurs profess, a great deal of customers request a chile condiment with their food. Sriracha, Cholula, and other vinegary sauces are not the right complement for everything.

“You wouldn’t take out Tabasco and douse it on Chinese food because it doesn’t go together,” says Gao. “But with oil-based sauce, it’s just a better fit for Chinese cuisine.”

For more than a century, milder cuisines from China dominated the Chinese food enjoyed in the United States. That began to change after the U.S. lifted restrictions on immigration from China in 1965. Before then, the first waves of immigrants from China, who created the canon of Chinese-American staples like chop suey and egg foo young, were Toisanese, from Guangdong Province, whose traditional cuisine employs little to no spice. Much later on, Cecilia Chiang’s San Francisco restaurant the Mandarin introduced Americans to Northern Chinese cuisine, like Peking duck, which also happens to not be very spicy. After the floodgates were lifted, chile-laden cuisines from all around Asia brought new meaning to the word “hot.”

But before these cuisines reached the states, a taste for spice spread within China. “Chile peppers didn’t even arrive in China until 200 years ago,” says Gao, whose hometown is Chengdu, Sichuan province’s capital. “They arrived in the East… then slowly moved throughout China, and it took off in Sichuan because of the climate.” Many other parts of China, such as Hunan Province, also boldly employ chile peppers, but Gao says that Sichuan food is so well-known in China and throughout the world because its cuisine is all about complex flavor combinations, like ma la — the combination of chile heat and numbing spice from Sichuan peppercorns. “There’s dozens of flavor profiles in Sichuan cuisine their chefs have really mastered what flavor can be.”

Diana Kuan, author of Red Hot Kitchen, a cookbook focused on the many varieties of Asian hot sauces, lived in China from 2007 to 2009 and witnessed the rising popularity of Sichuan cuisine in the country, especially in Beijing, where she was based. For the last few decades, as people — such as the laborers from the countryside who helped build China’s modern cities — migrated within the country, their cuisines mingled. “I think people are beginning to like spicy food more in southern China and Hong Kong, so there will be a little dish of chile sauce to go with dim sum,” she says. “In every city you can find some sort of spicy cuisine, so nowadays it’s pretty much ubiquitous.”

Hence, chile oil is not just enjoyed in Sichuan Province, where it would typically receive a touch of Sichuan peppercorn. Lao Gan Ma is, after all, a brand from Guizhou Province, whose signature flavor combo is a spicy and sour Xi’an Famous Foods’ chile oil has distinct spices from China’s western provinces, including cumin Su Spicy Chili Crisp has a scattering of sesame seeds 886’s Sze Daddy sauce nods to the Taiwanese condiment sha-cha sauce, which has a touch of sweetness and Nom Wah’s chile oil is a simple infusion of dried chiles and oil.

“Some regions might use fermented soybeans… in the Guangdong region they make theirs often with peanuts,” says Lucas Sin, chef-owner of Junzi Kitchen. The methodology differs, too. Sin, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, says that the different terminology throughout China used for these oils can offer clues into how they are made.

“Hong you,” which translates to “red oil,” is what many people in China, such as in Sichuan province, would typically call chile oil. Another generic term for chile oil used throughout China is “la jiao you” — which translates directly to “hot pepper oil.”

“We actually make you po la zi,” says Sin. He explains the character for “po” denotes the act of pouring the oil over something. (One might translate this term to “spicy pour-over oil.”)

Junzi’s signature chile oil employs this simple pour-over method: you take your spices and aromatics, place them in a heatproof vessel, and pour sizzling-hot oil over them at once. Other chile oils, such as Fly By Jing’s and 886’s, for instance, employ a longer cooking process where the chiles and aromatics are added in sequence, and cooked until the whole concoction is toasted and infused just so.

But, just like their English counterparts, these Chinese terms are often used interchangeably. And there are ever newer terms and variations being invented for a similar crispy, chunky, oil-y chile product. The grocer Trader Joe’s, for instance, makes a particle-rich chile condiment called Chili Onion Crunch.

Every cook, restaurant, and producer lends their own creative spin to this rudimentary vehicle for spice and flavor. Sin describes his dad’s famous homemade chile oil — something that he’s “kind of famous for” in his circle of friends and family. He dices the garlic by hand and simmers it slow and low for hours along with dried chiles and sesame seeds. There’s a lot of room for creativity, says Sin. “Most likely, we just make the chile oil that tastes the best to us.”

Cathy Erway is the author ofThe Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island andThe Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove.


Share All sharing options for: Chile Oil Is So Hot Right Now

Back in 2011, shortly after taking ownership of the 100-year-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Wilson Tang wanted to sell jars of branded chile oil. But his first batch did not meet the labeling requirements for bottled products according to the Department of Health, and he shelved the idea in order to focus on the restaurant’s bread and butter: in-house diners.

Nearly 10 years later, Tang came back around to the idea. “We had everything ready to launch right before we closed up operations for COVID-19,” says Tang. He released Nom Wah’s first batch of chile oil on the restaurant’s webstore, and it sold out within hours. Once operations are back up and running, Tang hopes to sell the product again, in Nom Wah restaurants and online.

Today, he finds himself in the company of other restaurants and small businesses selling a signature bright vermilion, sediment-thick chile oil. Tang says he was even inspired by fellow young, New York-based entrepreneurs, including Eric Sze of 886 and Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen, who each offer branded chile oil that was for sale in their restaurants’ physical locations before they closed to in-house diners due to the coronavirus. (Sze Daddy, the chile oil from 886, was available online but has sold out Junzi’s chile oil can still be purchased online.) San Francisco’s acclaimed Chinese restaurant Mr. Jiu’s has its own Chile Crisp Sauce, part of a lineup of sauces in partnership with Williams-Sonoma. Jason Wang, owner of the New York City chain Xi’an Famous Foods, which specializes in the cuisine of the western Chinese province of Shaanxi, also recently began to sell signature chile oil packets, by popular demand.

“I saw someone drinking it once,” says Wang, of his chile oil, before he made the decision to sell the packets separately. “People were saying, ‘I’m going to send this to my friend across the country.’” All locations of Xi’an Famous Foods are currently closed due to the coronavirus, but the chile oil can still be purchased online.

None of these business owners could have predicted that their chile oils would become vestiges of an experience that’s no longer available — dining at their establishment — for the lucky customers who bought them. They were intended to leave visitors with a lingering aftertaste and remind them to come back soon. According to Sze, who estimates that 886 sold about 60 jars per week when it was open, “A lot of people finish their meal and are like, ‘I’ll take a jar.’”

Now, as the timeline for reopening remains blurry, retail items from restaurants have become a hot ticket, and shelf-stable chile oils have been anointed a pandemic pantry must-have for those longing to give their home-cooked creations a whiff of spicy-restaurant nostalgia. But what is chile oil? What does it have to do with “chile crisp”? And why is everyone seemingly crazy for spicy, chunky, oily hot sauce in the first place?

When it comes to chile oil — or “chile crisp” — the first thing that pops into many people’s minds nowadays is Lao Gan Ma, a mass-produced, Chinese brand of chile sauce that’s gained a cult following in the United States. Inexpensive and widely available, its Spicy Chili Crisp condiment in particular — which some fans simply call Lao Gan Ma — is so popular that it’s increasingly seen as a benchmark for oil-based chile condiments, and the prototype that some restaurants have looked to to set their versions against. “Lao Gan Ma has too much of a monopoly. We wanted to offer something a little different,” says Sze.

The Chinese chile sauce brand Lao Gan Ma makes a spicy chili crisp. Lao Gan Ma [official]

However, there is some confusion over what exactly “chile crisp” means, and if it’s an entirely different type of product from chile oil, or a variation. “I’ve actually had Chinese friends who were like, ‘What’s chile crisp? Oh, it’s chile oil?’” says Lisa Cheng-Smith, founder of Yun Hai, an exporter of small-batch sauces from Taiwan. A condiment from a small Sichuan-Taiwanese maker called Su Spicy Chili Crisp was the first product available through her ecommerce business, and its best-seller. And while it’s been made for generations, Cheng-Smith gave it a new, English name for its U.S. debut. “I didn’t start calling it ‘chile crisp’ until I started selling it. I always just called it ‘chile oil,’” says Cheng-Smith.

“Lao Gan Ma has five different products, and only one is called Spicy Chili Crisp,” says Jenny Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, a brand of Sichuan ingredients with a signature product called Sichuan Chili Crisp. She says that she was taking cues from other references of the term “chili crisp” when she decided to name her product Sichuan Chili Crisp — in particular, a recipe for chile crisp in the Mission Chinese Food cookbook, published in 2015. That recipe, by Danny Bowien and Chris Ying, is inspired by Lao Gan Ma, “our favorite brand of the stuff,” the authors write. But it’s also a two-part recipe for “Chili Crisp and Chili Oil,” whereby the latter is produced simply by straining out the solids from the infused oil.

Products called “chile crisp” as opposed to chile oil typically have a higher ratio of particles in them than oil. Those particles are the chile flakes (and often garlic, shallots and any number of other ingredients and spices) that are sizzled in the oil to infuse it, becoming crispy in the process. This textural component is what many find irresistible about Sichuan Chili Crisp, Spicy Chili Crisp, and similar high-particle oils. They’re also typically seasoned with salt, soy sauce, MSG, and occasionally fish sauce or other savory agents like fermented black beans.

“I consider chile oil like soy sauce, in that it’s a cooking ingredient,” says Gao. “I view the chunky Spicy Chili Crisp from Lao Gan Ma and my Sichuan Chili Crisp as a condiment — I rarely cook with it I use it as a topping.”

But in reality, these roles are not so strict, and one person’s idea of a cooking ingredient may be another’s condiment. “You can cook with dried chile pepper flakes and you can also just scatter it on pizza,” says Gao.

“Chile crisp”-labeled oils can still vary a lot in taste, too Cheng-Smith thinks that Lao Gan Ma’s Spicy Chili Crisp is saltier and more laden with MSG than others — the product is “good in a junk food-y way.”

But whether it’s called a crisp or an oil, the idea of a spicy, chile-based topping that isn’t a vinegar-based sauce has little precedent in the U.S. For generations, when Americans wanted to kick up their entrees with a little extra heat, they dabbled thin, red droplets of a pepper sauce. There are thousands of sauces like this: cayenne- or habanero-based red, green, or yellow with the addition of fruit for balance or adorned with grim reapers on their labels. And while fierce proponents of Crystal and Frank’s Red Hot may argue about how much these sauces differ, when it comes to the general style, they don’t.

The taste for vinegar-based chile sauce is, of course, not just limited to Americans. The Southeast Asian chile sauce sambal olek is similarly bright and tangy, with a smack of fresh garlic, although it’s chunky in composition. Sriracha, a smoother, thicker, sweeter chile sauce created by a Vietnamese American in California, is also vinegar-based, with no oil to speak of.

A chile condiment that is not only oily but earthy, toasty, and cooked rather than highly acidic and fresh-tasting is still something of a novelty, found in Asian groceries or from the beloved restaurants that sell theirs. Walk down a typical American supermarket’s hot sauce aisle and you probably won’t find anything like it.

But as Tang saw it, with Chinese food more mainstream than ever, the time was right to sell Nom Wah chile oil. And, as he and other restaurateurs profess, a great deal of customers request a chile condiment with their food. Sriracha, Cholula, and other vinegary sauces are not the right complement for everything.

“You wouldn’t take out Tabasco and douse it on Chinese food because it doesn’t go together,” says Gao. “But with oil-based sauce, it’s just a better fit for Chinese cuisine.”

For more than a century, milder cuisines from China dominated the Chinese food enjoyed in the United States. That began to change after the U.S. lifted restrictions on immigration from China in 1965. Before then, the first waves of immigrants from China, who created the canon of Chinese-American staples like chop suey and egg foo young, were Toisanese, from Guangdong Province, whose traditional cuisine employs little to no spice. Much later on, Cecilia Chiang’s San Francisco restaurant the Mandarin introduced Americans to Northern Chinese cuisine, like Peking duck, which also happens to not be very spicy. After the floodgates were lifted, chile-laden cuisines from all around Asia brought new meaning to the word “hot.”

But before these cuisines reached the states, a taste for spice spread within China. “Chile peppers didn’t even arrive in China until 200 years ago,” says Gao, whose hometown is Chengdu, Sichuan province’s capital. “They arrived in the East. then slowly moved throughout China, and it took off in Sichuan because of the climate.” Many other parts of China, such as Hunan Province, also boldly employ chile peppers, but Gao says that Sichuan food is so well-known in China and throughout the world because its cuisine is all about complex flavor combinations, like ma la — the combination of chile heat and numbing spice from Sichuan peppercorns. “There’s dozens of flavor profiles in Sichuan cuisine their chefs have really mastered what flavor can be.”

Diana Kuan, author of Red Hot Kitchen, a cookbook focused on the many varieties of Asian hot sauces, lived in China from 2007 to 2009 and witnessed the rising popularity of Sichuan cuisine in the country, especially in Beijing, where she was based. For the last few decades, as people — such as the laborers from the countryside who helped build China’s modern cities — migrated within the country, their cuisines mingled. “I think people are beginning to like spicy food more in southern China and Hong Kong, so there will be a little dish of chile sauce to go with dim sum,” she says. “In every city you can find some sort of spicy cuisine, so nowadays it’s pretty much ubiquitous.”

Hence, chile oil is not just enjoyed in Sichuan Province, where it would typically receive a touch of Sichuan peppercorn. Lao Gan Ma is, after all, a brand from Guizhou Province, whose signature flavor combo is a spicy and sour Xi’an Famous Foods’ chile oil has distinct spices from China’s western provinces, including cumin Su Spicy Chili Crisp has a scattering of sesame seeds 886’s Sze Daddy sauce nods to the Taiwanese condiment sha-cha sauce, which has a touch of sweetness and Nom Wah’s chile oil is a simple infusion of dried chiles and oil.

“Some regions might use fermented soybeans… in the Guangdong region they make theirs often with peanuts,” says Lucas Sin, chef-owner of Junzi Kitchen. The methodology differs, too. Sin, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, says that the different terminology throughout China used for these oils can offer clues into how they are made.

“Hong you,” which translates to “red oil,” is what many people in China, such as in Sichuan province, would typically call chile oil. Another generic term for chile oil used throughout China is “la jiao you” — which translates directly to “hot pepper oil.”

“We actually make you po la zi,” says Sin. He explains the character for “po” denotes the act of pouring the oil over something. (One might translate this term to “spicy pour-over oil.”)

Junzi’s signature chile oil employs this simple pour-over method: you take your spices and aromatics, place them in a heatproof vessel, and pour sizzling-hot oil over them at once. Other chile oils, such as Fly By Jing’s and 886’s, for instance, employ a longer cooking process where the chiles and aromatics are added in sequence, and cooked until the whole concoction is toasted and infused just so.

But, just like their English counterparts, these Chinese terms are often used interchangeably. And there are ever newer terms and variations being invented for a similar crispy, chunky, oil-y chile product. The grocer Trader Joe’s, for instance, makes a particle-rich chile condiment called Chili Onion Crunch.

Every cook, restaurant, and producer lends their own creative spin to this rudimentary vehicle for spice and flavor. Sin describes his dad’s famous homemade chile oil — something that he’s “kind of famous for” in his circle of friends and family. He dices the garlic by hand and simmers it slow and low for hours along with dried chiles and sesame seeds. There’s a lot of room for creativity, says Sin. “Most likely, we just make the chile oil that tastes the best to us.”

Cathy Erway is the author ofThe Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island andThe Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove.