One writer’s experience at Mission Chinese, one of New York’s most sought-after dining experience.
Thirty seconds into our appetizer of Chongqing Chicken Wings at Mission Chinese, I was worried.
“Are your lips tingling?” I asked the friend sitting across from me. As a kid, I’d had allergic reactions to the flavor enhancer MSG, often found in Chinese food. The tingling came first, followed by swelling and tiny bumps on my lips. Zero to pufferfish in about two minutes. I wasn’t keen on repeating the experience.
Then I saw that my dining partner’s eyes had become a little red and teary. It might have had something to do with the pile of dried dark red chiles scattered all over the plate, providing heat and a little visual intimidation to a dish that was labeled with only one flame on the menu. We hadn’t ordered any two-flame menu items, but I can only imagine they would have arrived at the table buried under a mountain of those chiles. Or actually on fire.
So Mission Chinese is spicy. Anything else would be disappointing, given the larger-than-life reputation of the restaurant and its creator, Danny Bowien. Bowien is neither Chinese (he’s South Korean, raised in Oklahoma), nor a formally trained chef (he dropped out of culinary school), but he’s something of a rock star in the dining world. The irreverence Bowien brings to his menu is balanced by his faithfulness to the flavors of Chinese cooking and dedication to preparing it without shortcuts. I shouldn’t have worried about MSG; Bowien considers it cheating.
Mission was originally an unassuming hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco. Since 2012, it’s also been an unassuming hole-in-the-wall in New York—but a hole that about half the city is trying to clamber its way into, judging by the line that is a permanent fixture outside the door. When I showed up for dinner on a Tuesday evening, I was told I would have to wait two hours to be put on the waiting list. (Yes, that’s right. There’s a wait to wait.) With a string of publicity that would make most chefs salivate, including a rave review from the New York Times, Mission Chinese quickly became one of the trendiest places to eat in the city.
I wondered, as I took a seat under red-tinted lighting and the dragon hanging from the ceiling—on a Sunday evening, for which I’d made a reservation a week in advance—whether Mission Chinese was overrated.
The Chongqing Chicken Wings answered the question. They’re dangerously good—deep-fried and coated with a spice mix that has a hint of sweetness, and more than a hint of Sichuan peppercorns (the source of that tingling, numbing sensation). Served dry, the wings don’t need the help of sauces or other condiments; though throughout the rest of the meal, my chopsticks wandered back to the plate in search of the salty, fiery crunch of the fried beef tripe hiding among the chiles.
On our waiter’s recommendation, we ordered a cooling dish to balance the heat: Chilled Kale and Amaranth Greens, a cooked dish with tamarind and toasted rice. Both the dish and the strategy are highly recommended; I originally turned to the cold vinegar-dressed vegetables for relief, but the sweet and sour dish even drew my attention away from the wings for a little while. While meat and seafood dishes tend to be more innovative, Mission doesn’t neglect vegetables. Flavorful Red Braised Eggplant is served hot and has a kick from both aged chili paste and Sichuan peppercorn.
Our main dish was Catfish a la Sichuan, one of Bowien’s trademark amalgamations of Chinese and American flavors (the most famous of which is Mission’s Kung Pao Pastrami). This is what he means by Americanized Chinese food: chunks of catfish swimming in a broth with pickling brine, mustard greens, sichuan pepper, and small pieces of Tennessee bacon. It’s a strong, distinctive dish best spooned over white rice to balance the slightly acidic flavor. I found it delicious, without quite knowing what I was eating.
And that’s one of the best things about Mission Chinese: you’re never sure what you’ll get, but you can trust that it will be prepared boldly and prepared well. That’s nothing if not exciting.
154 Orchard Street
Lunch 12pm-3pm, Dinner 5:30pm-12am
By Naomi Sharp