Six degrees of inspiration – San Francisco

5 Jul 2016
by Jordana Rothman • In partnership with FOOD & WINE

When you’re Danny Bowien, inspiration can be found at a beloved bakery or in a historic neighborhood—or it can come from the lips of a rock star charging into your kitchen in the middle of dinner service. The chef behind Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina discusses the San Francisco people and places that have left their mark.


1. Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson of Tartine

She handles pastry, he manages bread, and together they are responsible for one of the country’s greatest bakeries. Husband-and-wife team Liz and Chad opened Tartine Bakery in 2002 and have enjoyed a cult following ever since—lines wrap around the block each day for Tartine’s legendary morning buns, flaky croissants and bread pudding. They opened a restaurant, Bar Tartine, in 2005, but they have taken their time in expanding, a quality that captivates Danny. “There’s a level of maturity that those two have in not growing and blowing it out too quickly. They allowed their concept to incubate and take on a life of its own,” he says. He also admires Liz and Chad’s immunity to trends. “There is something really classy about the way they follow their own path,” he says. “You are never going to see matcha French toast at Tartine just because you’re seeing it everywhere else.”

Tartine Bakery: 600 Guerrero St, San Francisco; 415-487-2600;


2. La Palma Mexicatessen

This market and masa factory has been serving San Francisco’s Mexican community for more than 60 years. But even as the neighborhood around it has changed, La Palma has stayed true to its core clientele, supplying local families with masa by the pound, fresh tortillas and niche Latin groceries. “Through the years it has not gotten fancier, just a little bigger,” says Danny, who would often buy chicharrones, salsa, and a bag of tortillas and assemble his own tacos on the sidewalk outside La Palma. “It’s nice to watch neighborhood people come and go, buying things to cook for dinner that night in their own homes,” he says. “It’s really inspiring to see a place that is just so supported by the community.”

La Palma Mexicatessen: 2884 24th St, San Francisco; 415-647-1500;


3. Charles Phan

Da Lat-born chef Charles Phan is considered the godfather of modern Vietnamese cooking in the U.S. He opened the original Slanted Door in the Mission in 1995, eventually moving that restaurant to the Ferry Building and opening many more along the way—among them Hard Water and the fast-casual Out the Door. Danny admires Phan’s food, but it’s really the rest of the story that he finds so compelling—the way Phan went about growing his empire, building opportunities for his family in the process. “He’s definitely the sharpest business guy I know,” says Danny. “He opened a commissary kitchen long before a lot of chefs were doing that, so that he could get consistency in his soup broths and sauces, and create jobs for his family members. He’s even helped bring relatives over from Vietnam to work with the business.”


4. Creative Growth Art Center

Works by artists with mental and physical disabilities fill the galleries at this Oakland studio and exhibition space. “Creative Growth is a crazy idea—a classic East Bay idea that was birthed organically out of wanting to do the right thing,” says Danny, who has purchased a number of pieces from Creative Growth through the years. “To me there’s a strong parallel between art and food. There’s an emotional energy that goes into a dish or a piece of art that you can experience on a sensory level. When you taste it or you look at it you think ‘who made this? What lens were they looking through when they made it? What were they feeling when they made it?’”

Creative Growth Art Center: 355 24th St, Oakland; 510-836-2340;


5. Third Eye Blind

The band behind 90s sensations Jumper and Semi-Charmed Life doesn’t get a ton of lip service these days, but frontman Stephan Jenkins is still out there touring and making music—3EB even released an album in 2015, with a track list that included a Beyoncé cover. Danny met Stephan in San Francisco a few years back during a dark period following the closure of the chef’s Mission Chinese Food outpost on New York’s Lower East Side. “He came through the kitchen at MCF asking if the chef was there. I was feeling down on myself and didn't want to call myself a chef, but the line cooks pointed me out. Stephan said he’d been traveling a lot so it was good to be in a place that felt like San Francisco,” remembers Danny. “That moment really inspired me to stop feeling sorry for myself. This guy has definitely not conformed to trends as a musician, and he reminded me that it’s possible to stay your own course.”


6. The Tenderloin and Turtle Tower Restaurant

The neighborhood known as the Tenderloin has a seedy reputation in San Francisco, but it also has a fascinating cultural history—from the Gold Rush-era theaters that proliferated before the 1906 earthquake to the legendary jazz clubs that flourished there in the fifties and sixties. “I’ve always been the optimist that wants to see through that layer of grime and dirt in the Tenderloin. I believe it can be shined up and look new again,” says Danny, who went to culinary school in the area, but would often find himself ditching class to wander among the Tenderloin’s many Vietnamese restaurants. “The reason we began serving Vietnamese breakfast at Mission Cantina in New York is because I missed eating Hanoi-style pho at Turtle Tower in the Tenderloin,” says Danny. “I spent a ton of time there when I lived in San Francisco, and it is still the first thing I eat when I come to town and the last thing I eat before I leave.”

Turtle Tower Restaurant: 645 Larkin St, San Francisco; 415-409-3333;

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