Hipster Mexican at Mission Cantina

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.

mission cantina - chicken wings close up
chicken wings in mole spices, chili vinegar, sesame and crema

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.

mission cantina - cumin lamb tacos (top) and hongos tacos (bottom)
cumin lamb tacos on top, hongos (mushroom) tacos on bottom

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.

mission cantina - creamed masa close up 2
bowl of creamed masa with beer braised collard greens

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.

Mission Cantina
172 Orchard St (at Stanton St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2233

Elevated Korean Bar Food at Hanjan

The Korean term hanjan means one drink. My dad and his Korean friends would throw around this phrase a lot, something along the lines of “Han jan hapshida,” or “let’s have one drink.” One drink usually led to two, and pretty soon there were empty glasses everywhere. The night would progress into a pub crawl of sorts, including a requisite stop at a karaoke club, and it would conclude at an outdoor street market or pojangmacha, where hot skewers of fishcakes, fried meat and spicy rice cakes awaited the drunken revelers.

Hanjan not surprisingly is inspired by the joomak, an old Korean tavern that offers “weary travelers good food, good drinks and a place to rest.” Although it’s pretty clear once you step inside that this is a very high-end joomak. Chic industrial fixtures and dark wood furniture are more Brooklyn than Seoul, with only the traditional ceramic pottery giving away the restaurant’s ethnic inspiration. I was a little skeptical that these chi-chi surroundings could capture the homey bar food culture that it claimed to be inspired by.

One bite of Hanjan’s “ddukbokki” put all those doubts to rest. And that says a lot, because my expectations for ddukbokki are sky high. This was basically the sacred comfort food of my childhood vacations in Korea. My parents would give me about 1,000 won to spend however I pleased, and I would literally blow it all on multiple servings of this fantastic street food. When I came back home, I would beg my mom to make it everyday and would not rest until some yummy spicy rice cakes were in my tummy. 

hanjan - pork fat ddukkbokki
pork fat ddukkbokki

The texture of these rice cakes were amazing. A nice and crispy crust had formed around the rice cakes, generating a sensory pleasure not unlike that of cracking the caramelized sugar on the top of a creme brulee. You definitely can’t get a charred crust like this off the streets of Seoul. The spicy sauce was also a lot more refined and restrained than the street version, which has a much more pungent, in-your-face heat about it. It was also a lot more balanced, most likely due to the flavor contributions from the pork fat and the delicious fish cakes. This is ddukbokki for the literati, not for the late night drunks, and the sober audience with its sharply attuned sensibilities can only be served something spectacular with no detail unnoticed, which Hanjan achieves.

hanjan - fishcake and daikon soup
fishcake and daikon soup

The ddukbokki was a hard act to follow, so perhaps that’s why the fishcake and daikon soup was a bit disappointing. Whereas the ddukbokki impressed with its balanced and restrained flavors, the fishcake and daikon soup underwhelmed with its extremely one-note broth that tasted like water and pepper. The daikon and fishcakes were well prepared, but they could not make up for the one-dimensional broth.

hanjan - scallion pancake with local squid
scallion pancake with local squid

Luckily the scallion pancake and the “freshly killed” grilled chicken wings righted the wrongs of the preceding soup dish. The scallion pancake, with its postmodern construction, was certainly impressive in its execution. Instead of a flat, circular pancake with filling planted throughout, the one at Hanjan was held together by a fragile web of tempura strands, in which scallions and squid were tangled in a precarious balance. It not only looked delicate, it tasted delicate too. The batter was light, which allowed the flavors of the ingredients to come through.

hanjan - grilled chicken wings freshly killed
grilled chicken wings freshly killed

The grilled chicken wings were also another demonstration of the technical expertise of the Hanjan kitchen. The quality of the protein was undeniably high–you could just tell that Hanjan really stayed true to its mission in using locally sourced ingredients and that this chickens came from a nearby farm somewhere, perhaps that’s where the “freshly killed” descriptor comes in. The skin was thin and crispy, simulating the texture of something deep fried except not, and it was coated in just the right amount of its soy sake marinade. This puts every thick-battered, sauce drenched buffalo chicken wing to shame.

hanjan - kimchi and beef brisket fried rice
kimchi and beef brisket fried rice

We were stuffed by the time the kimchi and beef brisket fried rice arrived. But the sound of beef fat and egg sizzling on the cast-iron plate was too much to resist. I loved how the heat burnt the rice into these tasty, crunchy bits, a comforting aftermeal snack enjoyed in Korea. While the texture and the rich flavors were tasty, I thought it was a bit on the greasy side, and I could have used more of the pickled kimchi flavor to offset the heavier seasonings. These were little nits, though, and we basically wiped the plate clean.

Serving modernized Korean food to a Korean crowd is a tough sell. Expectations are going to be sky high, since they are set to the loving memories of eating what their mother or grandmother once made them. Which is all the more impressive that Hanjan’s food attracts both the local loyalists and Western newcomers. Han jan means one drink, doo jan means two, and the countdown goes on since you won’t want to leave the inviting surroundings and the good food behind.

36 W. 26th St (between Broadway and 6th Ave)
New York, NY 10010
(212) 206-7226