I really don’t get it–why all the love for Mission Chinese Food? Of all the not-Asian-but-inspired-by-Asian restaurants opened by Asian hipsters in the past year, this is the worst. I should have known better. I’ve been to the original in San Francisco and came away pretty underwhelmed even then, so why should the one in Manhattan be any different? But the deafening buzz for the new Manhattan location was hard to ignore. Every blog I read extolled the food here, claiming that New York was even better than SF. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues.” Ok, this is some pretty high praise. Maybe I’m the dumb one missing out, maybe I should get over myself and go through the rigmarole of a two-hour wait to see how things have changed at the new and amazingly improved Mission Chinese Food.
Ugh, turns out my instinct was right all along. On a Friday, we stopped by at 6 pm and put our names down for a table for two. We were told that our table would be ready by 8 or 8:30. This actually worked out perfectly, since we had plans to have happy hour drinks with some friends in the area in between then. At 8, we received a call that the table was ready, although actual seating took place at around 8:30. So far so good–the hostess managed wait expectations extremely well. Our seats were actually at a communal table, where we were shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if your dining companions are inebriated and friendly and offer you a taste of their wine, and it’s consistent with the spirit of the restaurant’s loud, hip-hop downtown vibe. But if you want some peace and quiet, this is not the right place for you. Hint–don’t bring your elderly parents here.
We ordered the highly lauded salt cod fried rice (Frank Bruni deemed them “unmissable as Momo pork buns”), chongqing chicken wings (voted one of the best chicken wings by Food and Wine) and a special cold tsukumen ramen with fresh Santa Barbara urchin, wasabi, trout roe and bacon consommé. Are these food critics on crack? The salt cod fried rice was extremely dry and lacked any flavor. I tasted no cod whatsoever, and while the Chinese sausage provided the dish with some nice salty and savory flavor, it almost served more as a garnish as opposed to a well-integrated ingredient. Like if I threw together some day old rice, scallions, cilantro and Chinese sausage, I probably could recreate what was served that night, and that is sad. There is no way this is even in the same league as David Chang’s pork buns.
The chongqing chicken wings–way too hot. To be fair, there were two fire symbols next to the dish on the menu, indicating the intensity of the heat, and I do recall the food being very hot in SF. But wow, after tasting some cumin and sugar, my mouth went numb from the explosive chili peppers. The spices used on the chicken reminded me of a cheap and stale Asian poultry spice blend that you get at a 99 Ranch Market. I wouldn’t eat these even if they weren’t hot, so why would I put myself through the torture of eating a painfully spicy version? Needless to say, I stopped at one wing.
The tsukumen was pretty forgettable. I love all things uni but I couldn’t really taste it in this dish. The watery broth tasted like the liquid that preserves canned seafood, and there just wasn’t any chemistry between the consommé, wasabi and turnip that harmoniously unified the components into a delicious broth.
So–guess I checked this off my list. Mission Chinese Food is 0 for 2 in my book. Not a chance that I’ll try to improve that average with another visit.