Danny Bowien’s Mission Cantina is the most amorphous and shapeshifting restaurant since Momofuku Ssam Bar in the days before its three-star Times review. During that period, dishes would come and go with a seemingly relentless frequency and diners never quite knew what to expect. But once Frank Bruni anointed David Chang’s sophomore effort with three sparklers in 2008, the menu innovation slowed dramatically, changing seasonally rather than nightly, and then seemingly not at all for a while once chef Tien Ho decamped to Má Pêche.
Over the last few years, Mission Cantina has exhibited a similar chameleon-like nature, and perhaps because it hasn’t garnered quite the same level of critical acclaim — both Pete Wells at the Times and Eater’s own Ryan Sutton awarded the restaurant one star each — it continues to reinvent itself. In a way, this is part of the fun of the place — it is sort of like eating in a test kitchen.
What started off as an ostensibly Mission-style Mexican joint has morphed into a rather eclectic mishmash of quirky Tex-Mex and Chinese-American dishes. But along the way, Mission Cantina has gone through numerous, often simultaneous, permutations. This included serving Vietnamese breakfast and offering one of the city’s cheapest tacos at $1 and one of its most expensive burritos at over $18. There was even a lunchtime-only guacamole-topped hamburguesa on the menu for a minute. These days, the cheeseburger option is available at lunch and dinner, and just like the other twists on traditional dishes, this one is equally idiosyncratic.
Billed as a green chile cheeseburger — a form originating in New Mexico where burgers come topped with the local green chiles — it features a short rib-heavy patty from butcher Pat LaFrieda. But the nomenclature is somewhat deceptive and the familiar excellence of the patty (the blend is popular amongst chefs) is the only textbook thing about the burger. The chile toppings is a blend of Serrano and Anaheim peppers that have been fermented, heightening their flavor and adding a more strident heat than the New Mexican variety, which tend to have a smoldering burn.
But the use of a custom pepper blend is not even the most obvious derivation from the green chile cheeseburger archetype. In addition to the chiles, Bowien’s burger patty comes topped with white onions, feta cheese, and a shroud of mozzarella that has been seared on the flattop until blackened. It reminds me of the Bernice Special at Shady Glen in Connecticut (although there, American cheese is used), a place that is rather far-removed both geographically and culturally from New Mexico. But no matter, the effect is the same, and frankly I don’t like it anymore here than I do there — the cheese gets burnished to the point of carbonization and has an acrid, off-putting flavor. Texturally, it didn’t compensate for the general mushiness of the burger in total, and I missed the creaminess it might have added.
Paradoxically, the mozzarella, by virtue of its charring, and the feta, which remains largely unmelted, are structurally the hardest components in the burger. The rest of the sandwich has a steamed bun-like softness. This is the opposite of most cheeseburgers in which the cheese is the softest element. I suffered half the burger trying to enjoy the cheese disk before discarding it entirely. Then things fell into relief — the subtle sweetness and beefy brawn of the patty became more apparent. The onion, that at first blush appeared raw, was actually soft and wilted, with a gentle flavor. The feta added a unique saltiness. The bun is a highly commendable sesame-studded affair that Bowien scoops out and fills with cheese.
But bun, patty, onion, and cheese are ultimately just vehicles for the angry, pulsing heat of the peppers, which are jolting in a good way. They provide the sort of technicolor explosion of flavor we find at Mission Chinese, and they are the reason you should eat this burger. I may have misgivings about the cheese, and the patty could have used a more aggressive searing, but overall this is a captivating cheeseburger. It might turn convention on its head, but like much of Bowien’s cooking, it is gratifying in unexpected ways.