172 Orchard Street (at Stanton; map), New York, NY 10002; 212-254-2233; missioncantinanyc.com
Setting: Small but airy with lots of neon, but more spacious than Mission Chinese
Must-Haves: Rotisserie chicken, chicken wings, hongos tacos
Service: Effortlessly cool and graceful; you're well taken care of once you get in
Compare To: Taqueria LES, La Esquina
Recommendation: Decent for the neighborhood. A far cry from the punchy flavors of Danny Bowien's Chinese cooking, but it's solid by New York standards for Mexican food.
If you read the breathless press about Mission Cantina, Danny Bowien's second New York restaurant following the blockbuster success of Mission Chinese Food, you'd be sure it'd be a hit. How could it not be, what with a chef around whom so much of the food world has spun for the last several years?
Sure enough, the restaurant's neon-lit dining room has been swarmed by food press and early adopters chomping at the bit to show proof of the meals on Twitter and Instagram. Such is the sword of celebrity that hangs over every star's head: the urgency to get it right from day one while all eyes are watching. Is that fair, to Bowien or to us eaters? Not really, but celebrities don't always control their media wave.
After a few meals at Cantina I can feel the dedication and energy going into the restaurant. But the crushing ordinariness of the food suggests it's not enough. Petite, overstuffed tacos, high on style, are wan in the punch-to-the-gut flavors that made Bowien's name. Housemade Oaxacan cheese, bland as grocery store mozzarella and plated with some useless greens, is head-scratching. The question to ask at this early stage isn't "is it good," but rather, "would we be talking about it if it were owned by someone besides Danny Bowien?"
This is not to say the food at Mission Cantina is bad—it's not. But it lacks vitality in a way that doesn't suggest new restaurant jitters as much as a lack of diligence and editing. You'd never call his food dull, but I have no other word for undercharred Rajas ($7) served with one-dimensional pickled beets and floppy greens, or that Oaxacan Cheese ($8.50) sitting doe-eyed on the plate, waiting for something to happen to it. A Salmon and Mussel Ceviche ($13) murmurs lime and chili but is soaked with enough coconut milk to put you to sleep. And Guacamole, $8 for a few ounces of bland avocado mash and underpowered salsa, fails the cloudlike crisps of fried pork skin that accompany it.
Eat in enough of New York's fancy Mexican restaurants and you get hit with sameness fatigue. Gussied-up tacos run into "enhanced" imperfect guacamole or small plates coddled into being by professorial committee. You may hope that Mission Cantina, with its more than agreeable prices and effortless downtown coolness, would break out into new territory, aligning refined technique with elemental flavor for something so delicious you can't put your fork down. It does not. For that you should still go to Empellon.
Here's what Cantina does get right: chicken. The Chicken Wings ($11) deserve plenty of love: crisp, plump, and juicy, hit with moody spices, tangy crema, cotija cheese, and sesame seeds. Expect them to join the Great New York Wings pantheon once reviews start coming in. And then there's one of Cantina's signatures: Rotisserie Chicken ($35), schmaltzy and moist, served over a heap of rice with pecans and nubs of chorizo. It serves three at least, and if you order it, dig down for extras of rice while your friends fight over the bird. That rice tastes more like chicken than most chickens.
More credit where it's due: as with Mission Chinese, the service at Mission Cantina has an easy grace. You may have fought for your reservation or waited a while for your table, but once you're seated you're in great hands.
Other than big tickets like that chicken, the mains proper are mostly tacos ($4 to $5 each; order two or three per person). Fillings like tongue, carnitas, and alambres, a jumble of cubed brisket and bacon, are beautifully tender but lack seasoning and the deep, incorruptible flavor of well-braised or grilled meat. Al pastor doesn't register much in the way of spice; braised lamb belly, though impressively gamey, doesn't have much else to offer. As for those housemade tortillas, they leave the griddle before they could delicately char into greatness, and they're lacking in sweet, toasted corn flavor—though in fairness you could say the same of virtually every tortilla made or served in New York.
Heavy mops of salsa occlude most of what's underneath them, which is a shame as they could also use a dose of acidity to wake up their flavors. My favorite tacos had no salsa at all: get the Hongos, intensely browned mushrooms with only a smear of broiled Oaxacan cheese for company. It's aggressively simple, self-contained, and more than satisfying. The rest of the taco selection, including a comically stacked fried fish number that rises three inches off the plate, would do well to learn similar restraint.
The restaurant is still waiting on its full liquor license, so cocktails have to be hardened with the likes of wine and beer. You should wait for the booze; a Dirty Horchata ($10) spiked with coffee and soju tastes like a sorority's taco night gone wrong. The Michelada ($7), jolted with a good dash of hot sauce, is a safer bet.
So what to make of Mission Cantina? It's a pleasure to eat there, the food is plenty affordable, and it tastes, well, fine. It compares easily to less ambitious spots like Taqueria Lower East Side around the corner or, say, La Esquina, and that's before you count knockouts like the rotisserie chicken. If Cantina didn't have the Bowien rep attached, it could be just another decent Mexican restaurant on the Lower East Side. Which isn't a bad thing in the slightest.
It'd be unfair to call Mission Cantina out for the count. Just like his journey into Chinese cooking, Bowien's foray into Mexican cooking may need time to fully blossom. But growing crowds are wondering—today—what the mad genius who brought us kung pao pastrami is up to next. The answer is a work in progress.