A Big Spread
Food comes fast and furious at Mission Chinese, sometimes the the detriment of your meal—stories of rice arriving too late to put out the fire of a bowl of mapo tofu are not uncommon. Your best bet is to order a mix of spicy and mild dishes and take it all in stride with a group who is not afraid to share (or to eat off of each other's plates).
Like a carefully coiffed bed-head, the space seems grungy, but in a well put-together way. Extra seats are stored in the ceiling so you never have to play the game of "Is someone sitting here? Can I use your chair?" as the dining room inevitably packs to well over capacity. A giant red dragon casts its red glow over all the food. Everything arrives in shades of red and gold.
The entrance to Mission Chinese would be tough to miss if it weren't for the crowds of people waiting to get in. Just look for the mob outside the nail shop. Estimations of wait times routinely run 30–45 minutes short of actual wait times, so you'll want to park a seat near the serve-yourself complimentary keg in the front hall while you wait.
Beijing Vinegar Peanuts ($4)
Addictively vinegary and come served with a sprinkling of fennel and soft confited garlic. Along with the Sichuan Pickled Vegetables ($4), they're a good precursor of the powerful flavors to come.
Sichuan Pickled Vegetables ($4)
Fermented in house, the pickled cabbage can vary depending on when you get it, ranging from intensely sour and hot, to mildly salty and crunchy.
Howard's Peanut Noodles ($12)
A staple of Chinese-American menus, Mission Chinese's version of Peanut Noodles ($12) are packed with cilantro and ginger but marred by a slightly mushy texture.
Mapo Tofu ($12.50)
Pays homage to the traditional dish's combination of fiery chili oil, fermented broad beans, and mouth-numbing citrusy Sichuan peppercorns—but replaces the ground beef or pork with larger chunks of tender braised pork shoulder, a significant amount of it. The result is an intensely savory stew with the texture of a good Bolognese sauce. We quickly discovered that at Mission Chinese, if it comes with a bowl and spoons, you're gonna like it.
Red Braised Pig Tails ($10)
Sweet and sticky Red Braised Pig Tails ($10) are a paean to tiki bar-style spare ribs, complete with pineapple chunks.
Pig Ear Terrine ($9)
The tenderest you're likely to find anywhere, sliced thin and served in a sea-scented broth topped with crispy nearly-raw shreds of potato.
Westlake Rice Porridge ($11)
Also served-in-a-bowl-and-delicious. Comforting in all the right ways, the soft rice grains slide down your throat in a savory broth flavored with braised beef, shrimp, and soft boiled eggs.
Liang Fen ($9)
Tofu-like chunks of liang fen—cakes made of mung bean starch—are strangely bland. The slightly grainy cakes fail to pick up the any of the flavorful sauce of chili, vinegar, and chopped eggs that they're doused in.
Catfish A La SIchuan ($13)
A better use of the vinegar-chili combo punch is this catfish dish. You may know it as feiteng fish from classic Sichuan menus—fish dusted in starch and boiled in a vinegary broth flavored with pickled vegetables, chilis, and Sichuan peppercorns. Bowien's version also has a good dose of Old Bay. A Maryland seafood boil by way of Sichuan.
Stir Fried Buckwheat Noodles ($12.50)
Stir-fried with green Sichuan peppers and mushrooms, these noodles suffered from the same problem as the liang fen: a flavorful sauce that somehow doesn't manage to penetrate or coat the noodles in a convincing way.
Smashed Cucumber in Garlic Sauce ($4)
Bounces between hot salted chilies and mildly pickled cucumbers in a thick and garlicky sesame paste.
Chongqing Chicken Wings from Mission Chinese ($10)
The Mission folks have a way with the fryer—their Mission Bowling Club fries up some of the best chicken we've had anywhere. With their Chongqing Chicken ($10), they forgo the bony diced chunks of chicken in the classic dish and opt instead for meaty wings paired with honeycomb tripe—deep-fried, frozen overnight, then deep fried again for an extra-crisp crust. Tossed with a potent sweet-hot powder flavored with cumin and fennel, it arrives at your table under a massive pile of fragrant toasted chilis. It's one of the greatest dishes on the menu and goes a long way toward explaining exactly why people line up to get in. (Full review here).
Broccoli Beef Brisket with Smoked Oyster Sauce ($15)
Beef with broccoli makes an appearance under the guise of fatty slices of tender braised beef brisket under a pile of crunchy stir-fried broccoli. It has what might at first seem like an impossible amount of wok hei—the sought-after smokiness that proper wok cooking imparts on food—before you realize the Bowien's genius in smoking the oyster sauce before applying it.
Kung Pao Pastrami ($11)
First off, ignore the fact that there's house-made pastrami on the plate, and you've still got what amounts to a one of the best versions of kung pao in the city. After that, ask yourself "what can chicken bring to this dish that pastrami can't?" and you may discover why it's one of the most talked-about of Bowien's dishes.
Stir Fried Pork Jowl and Radishes ($11)
Some of the dishes on the menu could be accused of being monochromatic—you've got to be careful to order a varied set of dishes, lest you blow out your taste buds before the mapo tofu even arrives—others, like the Stir Fried Pork Jowl and Radishes ($11) have diametrically opposed elements that come together on a single balanced plate. Tender fatty pork jowl coated in a sweet and garlicky fermented black bean sauce threaten to overwhelm the palate, but are tempered by cool, barely-cooked radishes and a handful of roughly torn shiso.
Stir Fried Sweet Peas ($12)
The menu at Mission turns over relentlessly; over the course of four visits, a good third of the menu had already changed or evolved. Which makes room for seasonal specials, like this one of stir-fried sweet peas, pairing the Western vegetable with pickled onions and numbing chilies.
Sizzling Cumin Lamb Breast ($15)
As fatty and unctuous as the crispy pig tails, but with a crackling, cumin-blasted skin balanced with chili that encourages gnawing above conversation. It's messy but rewarding eating: you'll need your fingers to negotiate the bones and membranes. Softened dates, caramelized onions, and crisp greens add contrast and sweetness to balance the soft gamey flesh.