Mission Chinese, Part Deux

Mission Chinese got a major upgrade in its new digs on East Broadway. Gone are the janky Chinese takeout counter and that floating pinata, and in their place are fancy red booths and gold plated dragons on the walls. While I loved how much roomier and civilized this space felt versus the old Orchard spot–you can actually hear your dinner companion across the table, and you can even make reservations on Reserve–I did feel that it did lose some of its gritty charm. Mission Chinese definitely sold out a little bit and became a little less cool, but the food is still the same, and I would take that over the 3 hour wait in a cramped, LES basement any day.

big group dinner crew at mission chinese
big group dinner crew at mission chinese
remnants of mission chinese's hipster takeout past
remnants of mission chinese’s more humble past

The best way to experience Mission Chinese is to go with a group of friends and order a ton of things family style. In the old space, a table for 15 would have been unthinkable, but you can now book one through Reserve. And with big groups, they seat you downstairs, which has a funkier vibe reminiscent of the old Mission Chinese. One stipulation with big groups is that you have to either order off of a group pre-fixe menu, or you have to order one of the large format protein dishes. The latter is a better deal, as it allows you the flexibility in ordering other mains or sides that you want, and financially, even with drinks, it will cost less than the pre-fixe option. As an example, for 13 of us, our all-in bill was $52/person, which is significantly less than what the $69 or $99 option would have been after tax, tip and drinks.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset
chongqing chicken wings – very spicy
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
chewy green tea noodles
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
beef tartare with salmon roe
Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset
westlake rice porridge with rare beef, crunchy scallop floss and soft egg
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
thrice cooked bacon with shanghai rice cakes, bitter melon and sweet tofu skins
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
clams in pig’s blood
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
mapo tofu
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
big tray fish with purple taro, turnip and wheat noodles

I used to be a Mission Chinese hater and thought Danny Bowien’s Asian-but-not-really-Asian cooking was overrated, but I think I’m coming around, as I really liked all the dishes that we had that night. The salt cod fried rice is just as good as ever, and the spicy chonqing chicken wings still leave your lips feeling numb. The chewy green tea noodles, a new addition, are a fabulous choice of carbs, as are the bowls of rice porridge, of which we ordered three. I was absolutely floored by the thrice cooked bacon, which featured fried pork fat at its very best, and is proof that the tired bacon trend still has some legs. With all these fried, pan-fried, chicken/pork fat dishes, I found the lettuce wraps quite refreshing and was impressed by how well the beef tartare and salmon roe paired together for a very satisfying but subtle surf-and-turf bite. The clams in pig’s blood (don’t be afraid, it tastes like black bean sauce), mapo tofu and big tray fish, I probably could have done without, not because they were bad, but they were wallflowers in comparison to their brashier colleagues.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset
josefina’s house special chicken
Processed with VSCOcam with m6 preset
the chicken head is the best part

The widely hyped Josefina’s house special chicken arrived like a Faltstaffian goose overstuffed with chorizo, olives and butter. After living the good life, this chicken met an unfortunate end with its head chopped off, but at least it was a life well spent and well fed. I personally found it to be a little too rich for my liking, maybe because I was already pretty full by the time this arrived at the table, but you won’t find a more tender or flavorful piece of stuffed chicken in town.

Leaving you comfortably full and lightly buzzed, a meal at Mission Chinese is a good time. To get there, you have to trek a little deeper into the Lower East Side, but it’s worth the trip. And while you’re there, you might as well make a night out of it at Forgetmenot or Mr. Fong’s for $5 Tsing Tao. Getting the most bang for your buck, it’s the Chinese way.


Mission Chinese
171 East Broadway (between Rutgers and Jefferson St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 432-0300

Mission Cantina’s Vietnamese Breakfast

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but why is it also the most boring? Like can you really get all that excited by different variations of eggs and toast? Which is why I appreciate the Vietnamese breakfast offering at Mission Cantina, Danny Bowien’s Mexican restaurant in the LES. I’ve been pretty hard on Bowien and his seemingly inauthentic, experimental fusion cooking, but I have nothing but love for the Vietnamese menu.

a very strong cup of vietnamese coffee
a very strong cup of vietnamese coffee
complimentary shrimp chips and fried egg with maggi sauce
complimentary shrimp chips and fried egg with maggi sauce

Bowien’s cooking normally emphasizes bold flavors, but the Vietnamese breakfast shows a little more restraint at times. The chicken pho, for instance, featured a broth that was very clean and light, with some hints of lime and cilantro. It’s different from the more robust, more infused beef-based broths that you might get at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, but I personally liked this understated version, and I thought it was appropriate for featuring a leaner type of protein. They also use wider rice noodles in their Hanoi-style pho, which I found interesting only because I’ve never seen this type ever used before in the bowls of pho I’ve come across. I don’t think there’s any sort of flavor trade-off from using wide vs. narrow noodles, although I’ve noticed that you have to be a little more strategic about how many of these you grab, because even one single strand can take up too much room on your soup spoon.

chicken pho, hanoi style
chicken pho, hanoi style

For a true power breakfast, look no further than the duck porridge. This is a bowl of congee that immediately commands your attention from the first bite, more indicative of the punchy style that Bowien is known for. Sometimes porridge rice can be extremely bland, a blank slate that relies on the accompanying seasonings to dress it up, but the version here comes fully loaded with flavor, ensuring a nice and salty, savory base. The key here is to swirl everything around so that you get a little bit of the egg yolk and the heavenly bits of duck meat all in the same bite. It also comes with a side of fried shrimp toast, a golden, crispy slab of bread covered in this insanely delicious briney and salty spread that had me take a moment to acknowledge how good this was, and another when I dipped it into the porridge. If a bowl could ever cure all ails, this one definitely would.

duck porridge with ginger sauce, salty peanuts and shrimp toast
duck porridge with ginger sauce, salty peanuts and shrimp toast
broken rice with lemongrass sausage, fried eggs and pickle
broken rice with lemongrass sausage, fried eggs and pickle

It’s interesting how the vibe of Mission Cantina itself changes during morning service versus dinner. It has a very relaxed, off-duty energy about it, like as if the restaurant itself was hungover from last night’s fiesta and needed to recover with some hearty Asian food. You still have that same 90s R&B playing in the background, but on a much lower volume so that those bump and grind tracks become more like lullabies. I think this is why the Vietnamese concept succeeds where the Mexican doesn’t, because the emphasis is really just on making food that’s tasty and satisfying, as opposed to layering on bells and whistles that fall short. The limited and focused menu gives the kitchen the ability to execute things very well. So forget the late night tacos, sleep in and wake up early to a fantastic Vietnamese breakfast. 


Mission Cantina
172 Orchard St (between Stanton and E. Houston St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2233
Breakfast served from 9-11 am. Walk-ins only, getting a table not a problem.

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

Mission Chinese Food Fail: What is the Big Deal?

mission chinese interiorI 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.

salt cod fried rice
salt cod fried rice

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.

chongqing chicken wings
chongqing chicken wings

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.

special tsukumen with Santa Barbara uni and trout roe
special tsukumen ramen with Santa Barbara urchin and trout roe

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.