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.
Having eaten a whole suckling pig at Chef April Bloomfield’s The Breslin a couple of years ago, I was excited to see what she could do with one of my comfort foods: tacos. What made Salvation Taco even more appealing to me is that it’s on 39th Street, just south of my boyfriend’s apartment, in this part of the Murray Hill neighborhood that’s mostly filled with highrises and Irish pubs meant to attract the after-work crowd.
(It was ridiculously dark in the restaurant, so please excuse my heavily-lightened pictures.)
I’ve secretly loved the totally-Americanized horchatas I’ve had with pounds of sugar and cinnamon mixed in, but this one tasted much more grown up with the coffee and spice-ful Fernet. You’d, uh, never know it by the vessel it was served in, though. It should be noted that my friend Kim‘s drink came in a totally normal glass, so I’m 100% sure they were trying to shame me for ordering a frozen drink at 6 p.m.
The textures of the pork belly and pineapple were so similar that I couldn’t tell which I was picking up in the near-dark of the restaurant, but I did love the pork-fruit combination and the spicy finish. This was the sort of thing I think of when I think of Chef Bloomfield: perfect meats and a flavor punch. I just needed something crunchy thrown in.
From left to right: Moroccan lamb on naan, al pastor, skirt steak with pecan and chipotle, roasted cauliflower with curried crema, fried striped bass with Mayan mayo.
They were all flavorful and delicious, but the fish taco was the major standout, and I say this as someone who is almost 100% against the idea of fish mucking up my tacos. The mayo was just the right amount of spicy, and there was just enough citrus, and the fish was breaded just enough to give it some crunch without masking the flavor, and those pickled onions were the perfect accompaniment. On my next visit, I’d order five of these. And nothing else.
If I’m being honest, the burnt sugar ice cream was terrible. Truly, truly bitter and inedible. My perfectly classy dining partner and I were practically wiping it off of our tongues with napkins. BUT. When eaten with the pumpkin ice cream, it became like a caramelized sugar crust to a pumpkin creme brulee. I understand why they sell them as a set; they just need to come with a warning.
Salvation Taco fits into the neighborhood perfectly. It’s using excellent ingredients prepared properly for the well-fed business type, but it also has ping-pong, a trendy lounge area, and plenty of pretty tourists stopping by from the attached hotel, Pod 39. It was loud and crowded, but that’s what I expect from a restaurant trying to pass itself off as a cheap taco joint. The only problem for me–and for everyone else, from what I’ve read–is that this isn’t actually a cheap taco joint. The tacos are incredibly small; two bites, and they’re finished. I ate only three because I am a lady, but you can bet I went home after this $50 meal and ordered some questionable-meat tacos from the local Chinese/Mexican place for a fifth of the price. They didn’t compare to that fish taco, though.
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.
When we’re not enjoying gut-busting tasting menus, I keep my figure girlish with a low-carb diet, while my boyfriend eats low-calorie to remain a bronzed glamorboy. And since we don’t cook, much of our evenings together are spent laboring over what to order for dinner. I want burgers on English muffins; he wants sushi. I want steak; he wants salad. I want comfort food; he wants adventure. It’s not fun. But luckily, his adventure-seeking led him one evening to find on our favourite delivery app, Seamless, a brand new restaurant called 7 Green and Grain.
I’ll admit that I basically had to be forced to order from the place. It seemed too light, too healthy, not at all comforting. In the end, it was exactly light enough, so delicious I forgot how healthy it was, and as comforting as a bowl of pasta. It’s not pretty, but it’s delicious.
You start with one of their “Be the Chef” meals, a create-your-own-entree sort of thing where you select from proteins like cage-free chipotle chicken, char-grilled chile lime shrimp, turkey meatballs, and General Tso’s tofu. Next, you choose a base grain like couscous, wild rice, or quinoa. Then, you add what they call a “tasty texture”–stuff like roasted corn and edamame, hot pepper and onion relish, or dried fruit and nut chutney. You also get a side vegetable like steamed kale, golden beets, or caramelized cauliflower, and then you top it off with a dressing like ginger soy, yogurt mint, or miso peanut.
Here, I had the turkey meatballs with quinoa, hot pepper and onion relish, caramelized cauliflower, and the yogurt mint garlic dressing. It doesn’t look like much when it arrives, but once you stir it all together, it becomes this saucy, spicy, vegetal, meaty mix that’s interesting but comforting, hearty but not so dense that you’ll need a nap when you finish it. I have quite the appetite, but this always satisfies me and actually leaves me feeling good about what I’ve eaten.
My boyfriend and I agree that the turkey meatballs are the thing to get. They’re really well-seasoned–when you cut them open, onions and herbs stare back–and I like the way you can crumble them into the grain (or healthy low-carb seed, in the case of quinoa) and make sure every bite has meat in it. We also agree that the hot peppers and onions are the #1 Tasty Texture, because they’re finely chopped, mix in easily, and ensure that the grain won’t be bland. When you mix the spicy peppers with the cool mint yogurt dressing, it’s a delight.
Our second or third time ordering, my boyfriend decided to branch out and got the chicken with quinoa and kale. The chicken is flavorful without being too spicy and isn’t dried out at all. For me, the kale is pretty boring and needs salt, but he seems to be able to forgive that because it’s so healthy.
The vegetable bean chili is great when dumped all over the grain like a sauce, but it doesn’t cut it as a stand-alone dish. It’s almost entirely beans, and doesn’t have any of the deep, rich, developed flavor you expect from chili. They should probably call it a bean soup so you expect the brightness and thinness of the broth.
• Steamed vegetables are pretty awful when you know sauteed vegetables exist.
• The dinner portion is $13 to $17, which is waaaaay too expensive for what mostly amounts to grain or seeds. The lunch portion is much more reasonable at $9 but is also smaller.
• The number of choices in each category is bound to please nearly every palate.
• It’s healthy.
• It’s complex and delicious.
Despite being a hick from the heartland, I’ve never cared a lick for fried chicken. We didn’t eat it when I was growing up on the farm, because we were too busy enjoying the beef and pork we raised, and then I became a princess who liked all of her meat already off the bone. But after visiting California a few years ago and forcing myself to order the eponymous dish at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, I realized that maybe it was worth a little bone to have a juicier, more flavorful chicken.
And then I became blogfriends with Han of Handi-Eats, whose every other blog post is about fried chicken in NYC. She recommended the year-old Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter most recently, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the pecan pie bread pudding the menu promised, so I fought against my natural desire to not leave the house before 8 p.m. on Saturdays and met my boyfriend and our friend Nik there for brunch.
My first impression of the place was all about relief. The reviews online had made it seem like some divey place with no tables and a wait that would make lesser women gnaw on their hands for nourishment. Instead, it was this rustic-looking open room with white walls, dark floors, plenty of sunlight, five or six tables lining one wall, and a counter for eight or ten diners in front of a bar on the other wall. And people, the bathroom smelled good. I was immediately in love and daydreamed about myself living in Alphabet City and coming every Saturday morning to sit by myself at the counter, eat some bird, and chat with the super-friendly waitress.
The three of us ordered the fried chicken supper for four with ginger ales and sweet teas all around, and here’s what we got:
Twelve pieces of white and dark meat spread across two platters that sort of overwhelmed us when they arrived at the table. The skin was so well-seasoned and crisp, and the meat underneath juiced all over my hands. The huge, perfect pieces of breast were my favourite; peeling the skin back and revealing the smooth white meat felt like unwrapping a gift, and even the very centers of them, so far from the bone, were still succulent.
For the three sides included in the meal, we (I) chose macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and cheddar grits. Each of them was better than expected, with little extras like the crunchy topping on the mac & cheese and the scallions on the grits that made them special. We all loved the potato salad with its chopped peppers, agreed that the tangy cole slaw was too good not to be mentioned on the menu itself, and couldn’t get enough of the warm biscuits with honey.
We were way too full for dessert (and had enough leftover chicken to feed a fourth person), but we bravely forged ahead and ordered the pecan pie bread pudding and the banana pudding. The bread pudding truly was reminiscent of pecan pie, right down to the nuts that don’t get stuck in your teeth and the sweet, sweet caramel drizzle. But truthfully, I liked the banana pudding even more. My boyfriend thought it was too thin and soupy, but even he couldn’t deny how delicious it was. Even the whipped cream on top was something special.
From what I saw of its uncrowded tables at prime brunchtime on a Saturday, Bobwhite Counter is one of those rare New York City restaurants that’s doing everything right without anyone noticing. Maybe it’s the Avenue C location far from the subway, or maybe it’s just that East Village kids can only go out at night, but whatever it is, I’m sorry for Bobwhite and happy for me. I’m going to take all of my friends here in groups of four until I’ve had every combination of fried chicken, sandwiches, sides, and desserts that exists. Your invitation is in the mail.
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)