The first reviews of San Franciso’s Mission Chinese Food outpost here in NYC were written by professional critics and were, by my estimation, universally adoring. The New York Times said James Beard Rising Star Chef award-winner Danny Bowien “does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it”. The blog reviews that came soon after were less excited. I read complaints about the prices, which range from $4 for the vinegar peanuts to $14.50 for the mapo la mian. I read complaints about how everything was overwhelmingly spicy. Then I read complaints about how everything was overwhelmingly bland. I didn’t know what to think, so I thought I’d just go find out for myself.
Since I’m a woman who loves making and having reservations, I was pleased to find that Mission Chinese Food takes a very, very limited number of reservations per night. The website begins accepting them at 10 a.m. each morning, and 5 seconds later, they’re all gone. I had a few mornings of absolutely no luck and one morning where I was offered a reservation but then double-checked my calendar and lost it before I actually got a spot for a Wednesday night.
Walking in the door, which itself was almost too tiny for a person to fit through, we were underwhelmed by the little room we found ourselves in. There was a counter, a cash register, a window into the kitchen, and this backlit menu with only slightly better photos than your generic Chinese take-out joint:
After an uncomfortable five-minute wait, though, we were led through a hallway past the kitchen to the dining room, which was like a whole different world. I felt like a soldier in Vietnam in the 60s, off duty for the night and looking to forget my troubles with help from the cocktail-slinging bartender in the corner. I have no idea why I thought Vietnam, since there were Chinese lanterns everywhere and a huge dragon snaking through the beams of the ceiling, but I kept expecting the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to start playing. The whole place glowed red, and the servers were in tank tops and frayed denim shorts, appropriate to the Lower East Side location. In a few words, it was really fuckin’ cool.
My boyfriend knew he wanted the pig tails, and I knew I wanted the thrice-cooked bacon, but everything else was off-the-cuff. Here’s what we went with:
Beer brined sichuan pickles, with Chinese cabbage, carrot, chili oil, peanut, and sichuan pepper, and Beijing vinegar peanuts with smoked garlic, anise, and rock sugar. I expected the pickles to be spicy and hoped that the vinegar peanuts would provide some relief, but these were equally loaded with heat. Being more a fan of chili than vinegar, I preferred the bowl of pickles and probably wouldn’t have ordered both of these had we known that the pickles would also be peanut-heavy.
Eeeeeasily the best thing I tasted here. And you just know it wouldn’t have been nearly as good had the bacon only been cooked twice. Like the rice roll at Congee Village, I could eat these rice cakes for every meal ever. They’re a little bit chewy, a little bit gelatinous, and a lot purely satisfying simple carbs. This dish was spicy in a way that I’ve never experienced spice. It wasn’t the eye-watering, nose-running spice of Thai food or Indian food. It was a red pepper spice that literally made my mouth go numb. In a good way. In an I-don’t-want-to-ever-stop-eating-this-why-did-we-also-order-the-whole-side-of-a-fish way. It’s hard for me to express how much I loved this plate without writing a full-on love letter in drool.
If you’d told me I’d someday find myself holding onto a fin and yanking the meat off not to torture a fish but to eat it . . . but this was a) fried, b) boneless, c) fishy as all get-out but strangely delicious. The breading was thick and crunchy, like a shell. And the fact that it was coupled with those fatty, buttery biscuit halves didn’t hurt.
I only ate one of these, because clams are weird. But: basil.
Everyone, including me, somehow assumed that pig tails would be curly and skinny. But these were big and thick and meaty. If I hadn’t known they were tails, I’d think they were ribs. Only the meat was a little tougher and almost gamier, like it was on its way to being venison jerky. The smoky sauce made it a spicy/sweet mess that evoked all sorts of backyard barbeques when we added the meat to the white bun and potato salad.
My descriptions of these dishes are a joke next to the actual flavors. As someone who’s suuuuuper picky about traditional Chinese food, I didn’t expect to walk away from Mission Chinese Food exclaiming over how delicious and exciting everything was. Especially since it was SO spicy. But in addition to loving the food, I really, really loved the cool, transporting-you-to-a-different-world-ness of the place in general. I’ve still been talking about it so much that my friends all want to go and have been, like, name-dropping it on their OkCupid profiles without ever having eaten there. I’ll just remember to bring a big flask of milk with me the next time.
I know it’s not couth to admit this, but I don’t care much for Chinese food. I love the ponzus and wasabis of Japan. I love the chilis and kaffir leaves of Thailand. I love the, well, everything of India. I love Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iranian, and Korean. But when I think of Chinese food, I think of brown sauce. To me, it’s bland and sugary and does nothing to make plain chicken any more exciting. If I’m eating Chinese, I’m going to avoid the brown sauce by ordering sweet and sour chicken–because breading automatically makes things 100% more delicious–but I know that sweet and sour chicken is the last thing Chinese people want representing their cuisine.
So when my boyfriend kept trying to push Congee Village onto me, I was understandably resistant. And then we went, and it was wonderful, and I liked it so much I’m actually the one trying to convince him that we need a whole garlic chicken for dinner every night. Here’s a compilation of most of the dishes we’ve tried so far.
The decor at Congee Village is, while a little cheesy (see wall mural above), so much nicer than most cheap Chinatown joints. The lack of fluorescent lighting is a lot of it, but the fact that all of the furniture is wood and wicker makes it automatically seem nicer. The upstairs is bright and open, while the lower level is darker and cozier. A girl wouldn’t be horrified if you took her on a date here. Just don’t order her the fish head in broth unless you know she’s that kind of girl.
The service is neutral-to-borderline-hostile, but the food makes up for it.
This is easily my favourite dish here. XO is made of dried scallops, shrimp, and fish but mostly tastes like chilies and garlic. Since I had it first at Momofuku Ko a few years ago, I’m always excited to see it on a menu, and its natural deliciousness is only enhanced when its spread on something carby and comforting like these chewy fried rice rolls. The egg, chives, sprouts–it’s all complex and texture-ful.
Here’s a bad iPhone photo of it that gives you a better idea of what the rice rolls look like:
Otherwise known as soup dumplings or xiaolongbao. You bite the tops off of these, slurp the soup inside, and then eat the ball of pork inside. I’m sure any Chinese person would tell you that the skin of these is too thick and the soup isn’t plentiful enough, but at least you don’t have to deal with the long waits and gigantic communal tables of Chinatown soup dumpling favourite Joe’s Shanghai to get your fix. (And these are cheaper, too.)
a.k.a. char siu bao. Mostly a cloud of squishy carbs but with a tiiiiiny dollop of hoisin-flavored pork in the center. Not for the diabetic. I probably could’ve eaten twenty of these but mostly just to finally get enough filling. They’re only $1.80 for two, though, so it’s not like I was expecting a pig feast.
Think sausage patties but with big cubes of lotus root in every bite. The minced pork with salted fish is actually the more oft-recommended dish, but the recommendation usually comes with a caveat like “it’s an acquired taste” or “you would most likely hate it”. This was a pretty familiar taste, but the texture was an entirely new thing with the addition of the crunchy/starchy lotus root.
My boyfriend is half-convinced that he should live like a Buddhist monk and avoid anything with too much flavor, so this dish was totally his doing and his responsibility to eat. I appreciated the sheer number of different vegetables and fungi in it, but it mostly just tasted like soy sauce.
Brown sauce! This is a simple, belly-filling sticky rice with chicken, mushrooms, and vegetables. I wanted the salted chicken one, but our server told me it’s salty and recommended this one instead. I think he was worried about my blood pressure. Another time, we had the rice baked with two kinds of Chinese sausage, which I would more be likely to order again. Not only did it not have the dreaded brown sauce, but the sausages were very distinct and a little bit funky.
Apparently this is a luxury item served on special occasions in China, which explains why it was so expensive (and by that, I mean $15). We innocently ate this before learning that sharks’ rights groups are trying to get it banned because hunters will shear the fins off of sharks and throw them back into the water, where they’re unable to swim. In the U.S., though, shark fins can’t be imported without the rest of the shark attached, so . . . at least we force people to kill them completely? I guess we prooooobably wouldn’t order this again, knowing now what we do, but I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t an interesting bowl of soup. The flavor was mostly the crab, but the texture was gloopy and gelatinous and unique. I liked it, okay? I’m a bad person.
I have no memory of the type of porridge I ordered (knowing me, the salted chicken or roast duck and meatball one), but it doesn’t really matter. I know there’s a variation of this dish in, like, every Asian culture, so there has to be something to it, but for us it was so flavorless we found ourselves mixing every condiment on the table into it. I guess that’s why it’s for sick people and babies. I can see how it’d make a decent side dish for the more flavorful main dishes (RICE ROLLS WITH XO SAUCE), but I probably don’t need to eat a whole bowl by myself again.
I don’t even want to talk about this.
Crispy outside. Doughy inside. $1. With icing-like condensed milk for dipping on the side. This and a bubble tea (ask to see their separate drink menu for the bubble teas and fruit drinks) is simple perfection in starch form.
This is a terrible iPhone photo of a really great dish. The most important dish, really. A whole or half chicken, crispy skin saltily glazed, big slivers of fried garlic, and juicy, flavorful insides. There were big pieces and small pieces, white pieces and dark pieces. The more we ate, the more there seemed to be on the plate. Any time we go here and don’t order this, I feel like we wasted the visit.
My foodie friend Lucy read about Wong‘s Duckavore Dinner on a Chowhound thread and sent the link to a couple of us. Tempted by the promise of the duckiest meal we’ve ever had (even the dessert!), our friend Tiffany made a reservation for four with the required 48 hours notice, and we converged in the West Village restaurant amid candles, school desks, and beakers for a wildly successful large-format meal that was more than just novelty.
Although quite confusing at first, the bread service perfectly set the tone for the meal. We still have no idea why one piece of bread was puffed and one wasn’t, and we couldn’t find any of the cheese the server mentioned, but the four of us were in agreement that whatever it was, it was delicious. The bread was soft and warm and was so good on its own we didn’t need the sweet and sour curry sauce on the side but appreciated it, especially when combined with a basil leaf.
The words “fish sauce” haven’t exactly inspired confidence in me in the past, but this could change my mind. Our server told us the chef recommends using the lettuce to form wraps around the pulled duck pieces, but our lettuce all seemed to be fused together and impossible to separate for wrap-making; most of us used forks and knives and treated it like a salad. And what a salad it was, with elements fresh and crispy, sweet and spicy, citrusy and crunchy.
Three words: deep-fried bun. I was definitely looking forward to this course most, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t wholly satisfied by it in the end, but the bread sure was interesting. It had the thinnest crispy layer covering its exterior and just oozed oil all over my hands. The duck just couldn’t stand up to it, though; it was underseasoned and therefore underflavored, and there wasn’t enough sauce on the bun to make up for it. I did like the near-pickled cucumber, though, and you can’t beat those soft Chinese buns no matter what.
It was so unfair that there were only two of these for the table, because I needed four for myself. The sauce was so deliciously chunky and left such an unexpected heat in my mouth. The squash had the texture of a cooked apple and added a little necessary sweetness to balance the dish. I’m not sure I understand why paneer was used over a more traditional cheese, but I loved the added flavor and texture.
One of the chefs presented us with the whole duck before taking it back to the kitchen, carving it up, and bringing it back in pieces on a tray with sides of greens and rice.
In a word, the duck was incredible; all four of us were murmuring and nodding through our entire portions. I’m a big fan of tasting menus because the initial punch of a dish usually wears off for me after a couple of bites, but the sauce on the duck was a gift that kept on giving. It was sweet and rich, like a barbeque sauce for a dark, stormy night. The duck was tender enough not to need a knife, and the skin, though not crispy, melted in my mouth like it had been roasting all day.
I loved the rice in theory but only liked it in practice. It was so chock full of fruit and nuts that it should have been bursting with flavor, but it seemed underseasoned to me. When the juices from the duck touched it, though, it took on the same deep, savory flavors, so when I go back for this dinner the second (and third and fourth) time, I’m going to pile my rice high with duck.
This was far too hot to drink when it was served to us, so we had to sit and wait for it to cool while the fat congealed on top. It was certainly the duckiest part of the meal, and the thick, oily broth stayed on our lips long after our cups were empty.
Almost everyone I’ve mentioned the duck ice cream to has been skeptical, so I’m not sure why I went into this thinking it was going to be the best dessert ever. (Was it Wylie Dufresne’s delicious everything bagel ice cream that convinced me?) Of course I was right, though; it was ice cream, all right, but instead of being flavored with chocolate or mint or caramel, it was flavored with duck, and it was excellent. Maybe it works because we’re so used to covering our meat with sweet sauces for savory courses, anyway, but everyone agreed that it did indeed work. The flavor was pretty intense, though, so the golf-ball-sized scoop was just the right amount. The super-crunchy caramelized tuile was another highlight, both in flavor and texture, and we all liked the floral notes of the plum.
We almost seemed to like this simple cookie as much as the plated dessert, but how could we not love shortbread in duck fat?
Lucy accurately described this as a sort of plum soda; it reminded my boyfriend and me of the homemade sodas at the Jean-Georges restaurants that are really the whole point of dining there. It was light and refreshing, perfectly topping off the heavy meal.
It seems like the thing to do in Manhattan these days is to lure customers in with whole suckling pigs, whole lambs, and whatever this thing is (I still haven’t been able to convince anyone to go eat it with me). In my experience, those dinners are exciting novelties that don’t really hold up in the taste department. I have an inkling that Wong was attempting to gain some attention by attempting the same sort of idea, but I think they were much more successful. Not only was everything delicious, but we got to try so many iterations of the protein; it wasn’t just appetizer, main, dessert. This is also the first time in my experience that the meal had a theme that was carried out from start to finish, and now the idea of having an unrelated pie with my whole suckling pig seems like a cop-out. At $60 per person, with friendly service and a casual candlelit atmosphere, I can definitely imagine myself coming back for this dinner just to be able to watch three more friends get to enjoy it.
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)