UPDATE: Mission Chinese has closed since I wrote this article. Chef Danny Bowien is looking for a new space to re-open. In the meantime, you can check out his newly opened Mission Cantina.
For the first in a long time, I traveled to New York City with no reservations (yes, that is indeed a reference to Anthony Bourdain). It was a spontaneous, long-weekend trip and I didn’t take the time to make any reservations at any restaurant. Although I wouldn’t get to eat at some of the more well-known spots on my ever-growing NYC-eats list, it felt nice not to be bound by any plan.
I did take the time to check out Mission Chinese Food‘s website before leaving, only to realize that they didn’t accept reservations, which meant that I had the chance to dine there after all.
The tiny, unpretentious, basement restaurant has acquired a great reputation and counts many food celebrities and chefs among its fans. The façade is so plain that our cab driver – and we – almost missed the entrance. After about an hour’s wait (you can go next door for a drink after you put your name down on the list), we were led along a grungy, underground corridor which runs the length of the kitchen area to exit into the dining room. The decor is plain, red and includes a small bar area with high tables on one side and a slightly larger dining area on the other. The bar area’s ceiling boasts one of those inflatable Chinese dragon balloons while the dining room’s ceiling is “decorated” with hanging extra wooden chairs waiting to be put to use and a few, round, paper lighting fixtures. A couple of large communal tables and a few smaller ones are packed in tightly.
The menu is divided into small dishes and large ones and everything we ordered that night was delicious, including the cocktails. We started with the smashed cucumbers, which were refreshing and necessary as it turned out to put out some of the heat of the other dishes. We also ordered the caramelized, sticky-sweet, fall-of-the-bone Polynesian pork spare ribs served with pickled pineapples and a cherry on top! However, if I have to recommend an absolute must-have dish, I would actually recommend two: the thrice cooked bacon and the Chongqing chicken wings. The thrice cooked bacon includes Shanghainese rice cakes that could easily be mistaken for sliced potatoes until you bite into one. The soft, chewy and sweet cakes contrast with the crispy, salty bacon and the spiciness of the chili oil to create a perfect bite every time. And the wings, what can I say about the wings? They arrive covered in chili peppers and dotted with crispy bits of delicious deep-fried tripe. These wings are probably the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten, but they are also sweet, with an incredible complexity of flavour. My mouth, lips, throat, in fact, my whole face was on fire for about 10 minutes after the first wing… but I wanted more! The second one doesn’t feel as spicy and then they become deliciously addictive. If you can’t handle spicy food, these are definitely not for you. If you can like I do, they will become an instant favourite and you will crave them forever more, like I have every day since I’ve had them.
All photos © Nabil el Khayal
Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard Street (between Rivington & Stanton)
+1 212 529 8800