Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002 (b/n Stanton and Rivington; map); 212-529-8800; missionchinesefood.com
Service: Casually competent, good-natured
Setting: Cramped, lively but well-designed Lower East Side room
Must-Haves: Catfish, mapo tofu, kung pao pastrami, chicken wings
Cost: Easy to feast for $20 food cost/person
It's not every restaurant that can cross the nation without losing something along the way. But this proved to be a good summer for cult favorite West Coast Asian restaurants landing in New York. Portland's Andy Ricker came to the city with the Lower East Side's Pok Pok Wing, a storefront showcasing his legendary fish sauce-slicked chicken wings, and almost immediately followed up with the rabidly popular Pok Pok NY. And close on his heels came chef Danny Bowien, who partners with husband and wife team Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, out from San Francisco to establish the New York branch of Mission Chinese Food.
It's an interesting microtrend, and the two restaurants have inevitably been discussed in the same breath, but the similarities really end there. While Pok Pok sticks pretty closely to traditional Northern Thai fare, Mission Chinese Food plays fast and loose and all over the map, employing Sichuan flavors deployed in both expected and totally novel ways, as well as what Bowien has called "American Oriental Food."
Our enthusiasm toward the San Francisco Mission projects can be summed up in the titles of Kenji's two previous reviews: "Get Your A$$ To Mission Chinese Food Right Now!" and "Kick A$$ Fried Chicken, Burger, and Fries at Mission Bowling Club." (This is not the way we usually structure headlines, but it's hard to dampen that kind of enthusiasm.) So it goes without saying that our expectations were high.
But after repeated visits—and we've done the walk over to Orchard and Rivington quite a few times by now—we've been delighted again and again. Every time we walk through the dim back passage to the dining room (or every time we're first told it'll be an hour wait), we wonder: Is it going to be as good as I remember?
Almost without exception, it has been.
Which is a relief, because the obstacles to eating here are several. 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.
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 lengthy menu features many San Francisco favorites, some nearly carbon copies, others modified quite a bit, still others new entirely. And even since its opening, the menu has turned over relentlessly; over the course of our visits, a good third of the menu had already changed or evolved. We just find that that makes it even more fun to re-visit.
Food comes fast and furious at Mission Chinese, sometimes to the detriment of your meal—don't expect your rice to show up on time to put out the fire of a bowl of mapo tofu. 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).
So let's dive in.
Beijing Vinegar Peanuts ($4) are 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. 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. Similarly, the Smashed Cucumber in Garlic Sauce bounces between hot salted chilies and mildly pickled cucumbers in a thick and garlicky sesame paste.
A Savory Egg Custard ($13) that was extraordinary with sea urchin in San Francisco is still very good with sea scallop and a swirl of mitsuba oil in New York. Fresh Tofu Poached in Soy Milk ($6) is a rare miss, and disappointingly spongy—we longed for a silkier texture and a bit more flavor.
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.
Also served-in-a-bowl-and-delicious: the Westlake Rice Porridge ($11). Comforting in all the right ways, the soft rice grains slide down your throat in a savory, just-creamy-enough broth flavored with braised beef, shrimp, and soft boiled eggs.
Sweet and sticky Red Braised Pig Tails ($10) are a paean to tiki bar-style spare ribs, complete with pineapple chunks. The glaze looks intense, but the unbelievable fatty tenderness of what's underneath ensures that the taste is all pig, all the way. Sizzling Cumin Lamb Breast ($15) is as unctuous as the 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.
A Pig Ear Terrine ($9) is 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.
There are occasional misses, which tend to be dishes with powerful flavors that either don't quite integrate or aren't prepared as precisely as they could be. 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. Tofu-like chunks of Liang Fen ($9)—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. Buckwheat Noodles ($12.50) stir-fried with green Sichuan peppers and mushrooms 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.
A better use of the vinegar-chili combo punch is the Catfish A La Sichuan ($13). You may know it as feiteng fish from classic Sichuan menus—fish dusted in starch and boiled in a vinegary broth flavored with fresh and pickled greens, chilies, and Sichuan peppercorns. Bowien's version also has a good dose of Old Bay. A Maryland seafood boil by way of Sichuan.
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—which is 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.
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. The Broccoli Beef Brisket ($15)—the priciest dish on the menu, for the record—boasts 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 Bowien's genius in smoking the oyster sauce before applying it.
And the pastrami. 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 ($11) 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.
Some of the food 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.
And we're happy the menu rotates so frequently, if only to make room for seasonal specials, like the Stir Fried Sweet Peas ($12), pairing the Western vegetable with pickled onions and numbing chilis.
It's a simple preparation given an all-out onslaught of flavor, like so much of what Bowien does here. That's what keeps us coming back, despite tight quarters and guaranteed crowds and hours of waiting. There's a sort of dizziness these tastes induce, a vertiginous what-is-happening, an experience along with a meal.
We can't stay away; and from the looks of the always-packed restaurant, we're not the only ones.