A little less than a year ago, Chef Danny Bowien was assembling double decker tacos for $8.50 at Mission Cantina while Snoop Dogg piped through the sound system. Now, he's selling $100 ducks at Mission Chinese Food as Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die plays throughout the dining room. If the chef's Tex-Mex junk food specials were little more tasty than the fare at a local outpost of Chili's, his pricey bird is closer to the level of technical competence one might expect at Daniel or Eleven Madison Park. In short, Bowien is back.
It's been a long journey. The Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised, blonde-haired hipster first broke out onto the East Coast dining scene in 2012, when Mission Chinese, an offshoot of the San Francisco original, opened on Orchard Street to two-hours waits. The affordable, fiery fare made Bowien a likely candidate to lead the next Momofuku of the restaurant world, and the chef spoke of bringing his concept to Brooklyn, Oklahoma, even Paris. And then it closed. The dining room, which felt about as sturdy as a balsa wood airplane taped with firecrackers, shuttered following a run in with the Department of Health.
But the kid bounced back. Mission Chinese reopened this winter in a new space on East Broadway, a bit more mellow, a hint more mature. But it hasn't lost its soul: the environs still smell like lamb; most dishes are under $20; and the restaurant's warning sign for "spicy" is still a bare ass spewing crimson flames. The reborn institution, with cushy booths, a tinsel-esque art installation, and lighting too dark for Instagramming, is still a cool, hip-hop playing, no-reservations hangout on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Remember how the Orchard Street original used to let guests pump free beer from a keg to take the edge off the two-hour waits? Well, now the kitchen sends out amuse bouches — blazing hot cilantro and scrambled egg dumplings that pierce your palate with a verdant perfume. Fancy.
Mission Chinese has mellowed and matured.
If Mission Chinese 1.0 was about redefining and elevating the cardboard-box takeout experience, as well as acting as an entry-level point for the tingly flavors of China’s Sichuan province, Mission Chinese 2.0 is about Bowien imbuing the classic brasserie with an Asian-American flavor. David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar did this in 2006 with a concise menu of hams, offal, sandwiches, and small plates, but Mission Chinese, by contrast, wants to be a millennial's everything-but-the-kitchen sink extravaganza, with a bit of high-end prix fixe dining thrown in for good measure. The bill of fare reads like a Google Trend search of stereotypical New York dining: kale with "healthy grains" and bone marrow, wood-fired pizza, vegan ramen, fried chicken (packed with an intense poultry flavor), raw shellfish, large-format steaks, large-format uni (wut?), and tasting menus. Since the menu is nearly 50 items long, here’s a primer on how to do Mission Chinese right:
Don't Expect Tiny, Precious Plates
As Colicchio, Carmellini, and others switch from entrees to mid-sized plates, Bowien wants to nourish with larger, family-sized portions, meaning Mission Chinese is still a place where cooks on a budget can swing by, post-shift, and feed themselves with a single order of sweet-salty bacon with rice cakes or hefty, cumin-spiced lamb ribs. Translation: Come with a crew to sample a proper slice of the menu.
Not All Expensive Options Are Created Equal
"For the $50 price tag on the uni to be appropriate, the amount you’re getting has to be inappropriate," my dining companion quipped. He’s right: that sum gets you a full tray of urchin. I didn’t order it, and neither should you; do you really need more than one or two pieces of the briny roe? But next time you have $110 to drop on a starter, consider the 50 grams of sturgeon caviar, which is about what 30 grams of comparable roe often costs elsewhere. Or for $5 less than the price of the uni, consider the drunken fish, a silky study in the fragrant bitterness of Sichuan peppercorns without a ton of heat. By all means avoid the $69 and $99 tasting menus, which pummel the diner with 11-13 dishes, many of them served at once.
Order these dishes that are new to MCF 2.0
Raw scallops: Slices of sweet mollusk, topped with kombu for an intense high tide tang, and accompanied by sheets of nori, for umami-rich wrapping.
Green Tea Noodles: Al dente ramen with a hint of matcha bitterness and a world of ginger scallion flavor. An outstanding vegan dish.
Black truffle and ham soup: Tons more black truffle than ham flavor, which you should be okay with. Comes with a pastry crust for dunking. Righteous.
Lamb soup: A sweet, heady broth, fortified with dill. The cellophane noodles at the bottom boast so much jiggle they could pass off as braised tendon.
Clams with black bean sauce: An unlikely surf and turf, thanks to a proper dose of pig’s blood and Iberico fat. The result is an intoxicating mix of brine, spice, and funk that will surely find its way into every French bistro in the coming decade.
Char siu pork cheeks: The tender, gourmet version of takeout spareribs. Instead of Red No.3, Bowien uses pickled beets and hibiscus for color.
Steamed oat noodles: Wherein Bowien uses the texture and musk of eggplant and oats to mimic the flavor and texture of pork-based dan dan. Just one problem: MCF’s version is better than any dan dan out there.
Beggar's duck: Ordering this dish is like bringing a Labrador Retriever into a kindergarten classroom; it will make you, for a few short minutes, a minor celebrity. Patrons will snap photos as you crack the bird with a steel mallet. Bartenders will fist bump you as they observe the half eaten carcass. And you will swoon at the sweet, earthy flesh. Tear off a layer of skin; it dissolves on the tongue like a campfire marshmallow; it packs a flavor indistinguishable from seared foie gras.
Go Get Numb
Bowien doesn’t deign to do Sichuan fare with the same authenticity as Cafe China, Spicy & Tasty, or Legend. But I can’t name a single other restaurant that serves the Sichuan peppercorn itself with such clarity and force. So try Mission's mapo tofu, sweeter than at the original location, or the incendiary Chongqing chicken wings, fortified with fried tripe. What you get in return is inimitable: a level of "ma la" buzz so intense you can't feel your lips, half of your tongue, and parts of your upper esophagus. Exhilarating.
Mission Chinese, alas, is far from perfect. The brick-oven pizza, made from a Tartine Bakery starter dough, isn’t very good (the crust is as thick as New York-style slice); the menu is too long; and somehow there's still no dessert (unless you order a tasting menu). Bowien could've had a better restaurant if there was more menu editing involved, but I suspect this guy has too much energy for that. And the result in the end is still an absolutely thrilling place to eat.
Cost: Most dishes under $20. Large format plates go up to $150.
Sample dishes: Chongqing chicken wings, mapo tofu, green tea noodles, char siu pork cheeks, smoked prime rib.
Bonus tip: If the wait list is closed, try snagging a few seats at the less-crowded downstairs bar.