A James Beard Award, its own beer, and a slew of long lines later, Mission Chinese Food is a shadow of its former self. The Chronicle's esteemed food critic, Michael Bauer, is the first to sound the alarm. "It seems that Mission Chinese has gone from a quirky, endearing restaurant to a new-age greasy spoon," Bauer notes. Ouch. And he's right.

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.

What started out as a phenomenon, a clever twist on lackluster Chinese food dives, quickly turned into one itself — granted, a dive that still draws long lines. (Quadsters love long lines almost as much as they love twee, 85% cacao, and talking loudly about PBR.) MCF has had a big hand in the affected-casual trend that's taken over the dining scene in SF and elsewhere. (Bring back the aspic molds and flaming cherries jubilee, I say.)

In the end, though, Bauer notes that MCF needs founder Danny Bowien to run well. (Bowien, who worked at places like Bar Tartine and Farina, moved to New York in 2012 to open a second branch as well as Mission Cantina, his version of the Mission taqueria.) He might be that "one element" missing from the magic.

When the woks are firing on all burners, the experience can be charming in a reverse-snobbery sort of way. The play of the bare-bones surroundings off the deeply layered food created a kind of wacky synergy that made it all right. It's akin to a chef who can make two opposite flavors come together - with the right balance the dish becomes transcendent.

But it's a high-wire act: If one element is off, the entire effort falls flat. That's when the counterculture vibe loses its charm, and Mission Chinese Food becomes nothing more than a greasy spoon.

Alas, one and a half stars, down from three.

[Inside Scoop]