I decided to take a break from my work-week veganism and had dinner Friday night at Mission Cantina, Danny Bowien’s new Mexican restaurant in the LES. This restaurant needs no introduction. By dint of association with the undeniably hip Bowien brand, Mission Cantina is already drawing in the crowds and racking up popularity points. It recently ranked #1 on the Grub Street’s Restaurant Power Rankings, so you know dinner here will be a hot ticket, whether the food is good or bad.
I’m not a big fan of Mission Chinese, Bowien’s first restaurant, and I think the food there is totally overrated, but I actually like Mission Cantina. First of all, the seating situation is much more reasonable. Mission Chinese only took walk-ins and waits were like 2 hrs+, but Mission Cantina has partnered with CityEats for a very civilized online reservation system. There’s also a lot more space at Mission Cantina–you’re not jammed into communal tables, and you can actually carry on a private conversation. The noise level is lively but not too loud, and I loved the 90s R&B soundtrack playing in the background (Ashanti’s “Foolish” playing twice in one sitting??).
So let’s get to the point here–is this restaurant riding on Bowien’s hipster coattails? The short answer is yes. The Mexican food here is solid, but nothing really stands out. At least at Mission Chinese, the explosive Chonqing chicken wings and the salt cod fried rice had very distinctive flavor profiles, but the dishes at Mission Cantina lack that defining “it” factor. Bowien’s cooking is known for pushing the envelope a bit, which is why I was so surprised that, with all the cumin, cheese and crema going on, most of the food stops just short of delivering some drama.
Many people have waxed poetic about the chicken wings here, but I thought the mole dry rub on the wings was a bit too dull and dark. I almost felt like the skin had been coated in some burnt ground coffee grounds, which is a unique sensation, I suppose, but not a totally appetizing one. Crumbles of cotija cheese and pools of crema generously accompanied the chicken, as did some slices of cucumbers. You would have thought that these ingredients were supposed to enhance the dish in some way, but their flavors were so neutral that they were a bit redundant. The chicken wings themselves were perfectly cooked, which is why I kept eating them, and the expectation of a Bowien flavor effect motivated me further, but ultimately the dish did not live up to its promise.
I did genuinely like the mushroom and lamb tacos. The tacos, which come two per order, are a bit on the small side, but the flavors pack a nice punch, as you would expect from Bowien’s cooking, and the fillings are appropriately rich, so you don’t feel like you’re getting shortchanged. I thought the way the hongos, or mushroom, tacos was prepared was extremely impressive–how was the kitchen able to extract so much flavor from simply browning mushrooms? The melted queso that came with it looked initially suspicious, like a microwave experiment gone awry–did someone nuke some sharp cheddar to the point of oblivion? But there’s some method to this madness. The stiff, unyielding surface of the cheese explosions forces you to eat the taco almost like a tostada. This allows for more even distribution of texture and flavor, because by eating across, you get just the right doses of sharply concentrated cheese in each bite. I also liked the quality and the texture of the tortillas. They were grilled to order, leaving them nice and warm and bubbly with pleasing charred air pockets.
The cumin lamb tacos won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The lamb is intensely gamey, although the herbed crema and smoked prune balance this out somewhat. I appreciated how the tacos really showcased the lamb flavors in a completely uninhibited way. You’ll get gaminess, you’ll get texture, you’ll get richness all in one decadent bite. It’s definitely heavy, and you’ll have lamb fat and cream overflowing from the tortilla, but that didn’t bother me for some reason.
Another slight disappointment for me was the creamed masa and beer braised collard greens. This is another dish that everyone raves about, but I thought it tasted like really good polenta and really good, spicy collard greens. I’m not sure if combining the two really created any flavor synergies. Again, I kept eating it to see if I was missing something, but it never really built up to anything amazing. It is a solid appetizer, but if you want something game changing in the masa landscape, this isn’t it.
If Mission Cantina were a taco take-out restaurant, I would be here in a hot second. But for a proper sit-down Mexican dinner, this wouldn’t be my first choice. A man can’t live by tacos alone – there needs to be complementary sides, vegetables and mains to round out the meal. There is technically variety on the menu at Mission Cantina, but everything is seasoned pretty similarly, and the meal becomes very one-note. Even if you wanted to eat more, you don’t feel all that inclined to, because there’s only so much more cumin and mole you can take in one sitting. Which is a problem, since Mission Cantina is clearly not trying to deliver on authenticity, but on the interesting. If your flashy experiments can’t hold anyone’s attention, then you better rethink your kitchen strategy, since the competition in tacos is pretty fierce.
172 Orchard St (at Stanton St)
New York, NY 10002