At Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side, which donates 75 cents from the purchase of each entree to the Food Bank of New York, guests get a charitable nod, too: free beer.
Rightly so. You’ve spent $15 on a cab to Orchard Street for an $11 plate of kung pao pastrami. The applewood-smoked meat is an oddly delicious mash-up of Midwest barbecue, Jewish tradition and mouth-tingling Sichuan spice.
Too bad the host tells you it’ll be an hour (“maybe longer”) before you sit. Will you end up shelling out $30 for cocktails at a nearby bar while you wait and your stomach grumbles?
Maybe not. Something unexpected happens at this civilized frat-party of a restaurant: Pointing to a metal keg and a stack of plastic cups, the host says, “Help yourself.”
The brew is Budweiser, so thumbs up to Mission for offering the American lager, which tastes so much better when you’re not paying for it. (Once you’re seated, it’s no longer free.)
Beer is a natural fire extinguisher when you’ve just taken a forkful of catfish floating in crimson-red oil, and your mouth explodes with a searing blast.
Mission Chinese is proof that an excellent restaurant can keep things affordable even while coddling the customer a bit. It offers those once familiar vestiges of a bygone era: Bar stools with lumbar support, superb service, the Smashing Pumpkins playing at reasonable levels and the acceptance of plastic, including the American Express card.
There’s even air conditioning. Mission keeps you cool while pickled carrots scorch your interior.
The chef is a philanthropic kind of guy. Born in South Korea and adopted by Oklahomans, Danny Bowien opened his first Mission Chinese in San Francisco in 2010, where he’s raised more than $124,000 for that city’s Food Bank.
Now he’s brought the Mission to New York in a room illuminated by a giant dragon lamp. The eerie red glow evokes a Macanese brothel, albeit one run by a pretty good chef.
Mission’s cuisine, per its kung-fu decorated website, is “Americanized Oriental Food,” which might not be politically correct but does describe triple-cooked bacon (poached, steamed, fried), a brash act of one-upmanship against everyone’s beloved double-sauteed pork.
The bacon is a pan-Chinese dish of sorts, with sweet yuba as a hat tip to Taiwan, chewy rice cakes as a nod to Shanghai and Benton’s pork as a curtsy to Hunan (by way of Tennessee).
You notice a tickle on your tongue that lasts for 30 seconds. That’s because Bowien seasons the rice cakes with Sichuan peppercorns, famous for their numbing properties. Maybe you’ve experienced such a sensation at fine venues like Legend or Cafe China? At Mission, you get a cleaner, longer high.
Bowien grinds the peppercorns into a powder, tosses them with sugar and sprinkles the powder over hot, hot chicken wings with fried beef tripe. The sweet-salty-savory combination is dangerously addictive.
Beware the nuclear-powered tofu ($12.50). Bowien tosses the edible silk into a porcine Bolognese. The palate is bombarded by the perfume of cilantro, the musk of pork and the sucker punch of chile. Feels like a Novocaine injection and lasts almost as long.
The appropriate drinking antidote is the T-1000, a blend of Korean sochu, cantaloupe juice and warming black pepper. It brings you down slowly. This is the methadone of cocktails. Tamer types can drink Gotham Projects Riesling Chardonnay blend on tap for a little acid balance.
Tone down further with monkfish liver sashimi ($13). The maritime foie dissolves on the tongue in a silky, briny bliss, with notes of mint from shiso and shocks of salt from ramp shoyu. Cod fried rice, with sweet lap cheong sausage and a mountain of cilantro, costs $11 and feeds three. Beef and broccoli ($15), the bane of Cantonese-American cuisine, is interpreted by Mission as braised brisket with smoked oyster sauce, a perfectly traif Sunday dinner.
Sorry, no dessert. So finish off with salmon roe-topped egg custard. No cordials either; better tap that keg again on the way out. I hear Mission has updated the selection to Miller High Life, the “Champagne of Beers.” I dig it.
Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: All dishes $15 or under.
Sound Level: Around 75 decibels, reasonable.
Date Place: Yes, though the spices, ahem, carry over.
Inside Tip: Avoid the fatty jowl and lamb breast.
Special Feature: Limited reservations available via email.
Back on My Own Dime: You bet.
Mission Chinese Food is at 154 Orchard St. Information: +1-212-529-8800; http://www.missionchinesefood.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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