Mission Chinese Food, Review: Hot, Hot, Melt-Your-Face Hot
Big. Tray. Chicken. Sometimes, for no reason at all, I’ll start to think about it. And once I start to think about it—the wok full of fried meat on the bone, the chewy noodles, the hot, face-tingling sauce bound with cumin and fennel seeds, thrashing with chilis and Sichuan peppercorns—well then that’s it. I have to get down to Spicy Village and get it.
Rare, spectacular restaurant dishes can burrow deep and get stuck in your head like a perfect pop song. Chef Angela Dimayuga’s word for those dishes is “crave-able,” which sounds a bit like the trademarked copy you’d see on a bag of chips while being precisely correct: Sometimes, for no reason at all, you’ll start to think about them.
Dimayuga runs the kitchen at Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien’s West Coast import, which used to sling killer Kung Pao pastrami and other delicious oddities in a dilapidated building on Orchard Street until it was shut down last year by the New York City Department of Health. Twice. (I know, but stay with me.) The hit factory’s new home nearby on the Lower East Side is sound, clean, and comparatively deluxe—a two-story food party, decked out with chandeliers and shiny red booths, where the music plays hard and loud and the back wall is covered in crinkled silver mylar, like some kind of early disco cave.
The Big Tray Fish ($55) is one of my favorite dishes on the new menu, a masterful cover of the Spicy Village classic and the very definition of crave-able. Instead of poultry, it’s served here with a whole dorade on the bone (or occasionally, a porgy), over a bed of noodles. There is less sauce in this adaptation, but in keeping with Mission Chinese Food’s house style, it has a brash, in-your-face kind of intensity that more than makes up for it.
The base is a dark rye beer, stained red with chili, almost toasted with cumin. On top, there’s a massive pile of fresh, sweet, crunchy herbs that will send each bite off in a different direction. It’s not a replica of the original, but it has the same effect: Eat, go on, keep going, and suddenly your lips and tongue will begin to buzz as if your body has tapped into some invisible current that runs through the city.
I could hardly stop eating the bittersweet sauce-soaked noodles, the big sweet purple taro crushed into the corners of the pan with little bits of fish scraped off the bone, but I did—to offer seconds around the table. The thing is, the dish has been calibrated with so many kinds of heat that it can trip you out, like wisdom-tooth surgery, making you go numb and salivate all at once.
“Too weird,” a couple of friends said with a shrug, going instead for seconds of the Chewy Green Tea Noodle ($9), a sweeter, more delicate concoction whose threadlike noodles were developed in collaboration with the New Jersey-based noodle company Sun Noodle. (They’re colored with matcha, the bright green tea powder, and dusted with even more of it.) Then the duo had third helpings of the fried rice, woven with caramelized onion, mushrooms, and thin strips of dehydrated beef ($14). Not everything at Mission Chinese is deadly hot.
The new menu includes a few oldies, but it has expanded to seven pages, with several additional heavyweight dishes to share, priced above $50. The caviar—excellent stuff from Petrossian, served with a huge puff of sourdough flatbread, salty kefir butter, buttermilk under chives, and a heap of grated egg yolk—is one of the finest, food nerdiest, and most compelling variations on caviar service in town. Not all the big-ticket items are so successful.
The whole duck ($100) stuffed with sticky rice and wrapped in a lotus leaf, baked under a shell of hot clay, certainly makes for an impressive presentation. You break it open with a meat mallet, then pour over the sauce and attack. The soft skin and sweet, rice-perfumed meat fall away at the touch of your chopsticks. But once the clay is cleared and the drama dissipated, what’s left might seem inadequate, as if the dish is incomplete. Josefina's House Special Chicken ($75), a recipe from Dimayuga’s Filipina grandmother, is a more exciting large-format option: a gothic presentation of a whole bird, feet and all, filled with a rich, salty sausage stuffing speckled with raisins, olives, and soft-boiled eggs.
Those seeking heat in more manageable doses can find it in the steamed oat noodles ($13) swimming in vinegar-y chili oil with crunchy oats and smears of soft, smoky eggplant, a combination that works so perfectly it’s alarming. Or the sliced rice cakes with pieces of bacon and bitter melon ($13). The fried Chongqing chicken wings ($13) don’t look especially hot, but they are—and they’re delicious, with bits of fried tripe and a coating of chili powder that makes your lips tingle, then throb.
The pizza is not bad at all, but why waste your time on pizza when there's a winter melon and black truffle soup ($16) under a thick cap of (slightly undercooked) puff pastry—and a sliced smoked pork jowl of crisp and meltingly soft fat to dab with pork liver sauce and mustard ($35)? Why fill up on pepperoni when there’s a banana blossom salad with pickled tea leaves to wrap your brain around?
You’ll probably catch a glimpse of Bowien, the owner, in big, clear-framed glasses and stripes, delivering dishes through the dining room, occasionally holding his year-old son in his arms and introducing the baby to diners. If you close the place out, you might see Dimayuga too, in her soda jerk hat, surveying the room at the end of the night.
When the restaurant is slammed, hosts and servers can get frazzled. Everyone seems to mean well, but don’t expect consistently smooth service at Mission Chinese. Drink menus arrived, on one occasion, long after we’d placed our food order. And I wasn’t even handed a wine list until my third visit. The no-reservations system can also be a mess, with estimated wait times that are wildly inaccurate.
Despite these hassles, the restaurant is worth a trip—several, in my opinion—for the good vibes and delicious, idiosyncratic food, such as that beautiful weirdo Big Tray Fish. Go once. Sooner or later, you’ll need to go back for more.
Mission Chinese Food is at 171 East Broadway (Lower East Side); +1 212 432-0300 or missionchinesefood.com
Rating: 2/4 Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Big tray fish ($50); Steamed oat noodles ($13); Beef jerky fried rice ($14); Chongqing chicken wings ($13); Winter melon soup; caviar service if you’re feeling flush ($110 for 50 grams), or anchovies with pickled chilis if you’re not. (It offers the same excellent bread and butter components as the caviar, which you really shouldn’t miss.) ($12.50)
Soundtrack: Nas; No Doubt; Metallica; Fugees; The Gin Blossoms; and even the odd appearance from the Spice Girls. Downstairs, in the creepy, mirror-lined hallway that connects the bar to the bathrooms, it’s always the lovely, sinister music of the early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks.
Who’s Next to You: A twentysomething man in a black beanie with a twentysomething woman in a black beanie; All of downtown’s tall, beautiful misfits, many of whom are wearing black beanies.
Need to know: Service can be inconsistent, and the restaurant does not accept reservations. Just show up and put your name down, then go the bar next door (or wherever you like) and drink until you get a text saying your table is ready. (Then be there within 10 minutes with your entire party, or you’ll lose the table). If you’re not in the mood to put up with this sort of nonsense, best to show up super-early, before 6 p.m., when chances are that you’ll be seated right away.