Mission Chinese Food greets customers with its signature tongue-in-cheek approach as soon as they walk in the door. The entrance to the Lower East Side restaurant, opened this spring, is set up like a traditional takeout spot, complete with a backlit menu board and faded pictures of various menu items. But as the stylish hostess and two-hour wait show, Mission Chinese is anything but a conventional neighborhood joint.
The second location of the wildly popular San Francisco restaurant showcases the in-your-face, inventive style of Danny Bowien, the Korean-American chef whose signature ombré-dyed hair stands out in Mission Chinese’s open kitchen, where he can often be spotted hard at work as diners make their way into the tiny, eclectically decorated main dining room.
Located past a curtain, down a narrow hallway, and up half a flight of stairs, Mission Chinese’s space has a casual, offbeat vibe that pairs well with its distinctive menu, which Bowien has described as “Americanized Oriental.” Featuring soft pink lighting and a papier-mâché dragon, the room seats about 50 customers, served by a small, efficient staff of stylishly dressed, mostly tattooed servers.
Despite donating $0.75 of the proceeds from every menu item to the Food Bank for New York City, a policy carried over from the original San Francisco location, Mission Chinese manages to keep its prices impressively low—well within the budget of most students. Appetizers provide an excellent introduction to Mission’s use of American ingredients in traditional Sichuan cooking, a strategy that results in vividly flavorful takes on Chinese food unlike anything found in nearby Chinatown. A recent addition to the menu, BBQ pig tails served with smoked Coca-Cola, white bread, and pickles ($9), is influenced by both traditional Sichuan techniques and the flavors of Bowien’s native Oklahoma City.
The entrees, meanwhile, continue to walk the fine line between American and Chinese influences. The restaurant’s signature thrice-cooked bacon ($12) douses Shanghainese rice cakes, bitter melon, tofu skin, and thick slabs of bacon in chili oil before topping off the dish with Sichuan peppercorns. The result is spicy, fatty, and slightly sour—and boasts a vegan alternative. The kung pao pastrami ($12) also packs a punch, providing an innovative play on the Jewish-American community’s penchant for Chinese food by using deli meat from Katz’s, located just a few blocks away, in the classic dish.
Although getting a table at Mission Chinese can be a hassle—would-be diners may want to arrive a few minutes before the restaurant’s 5:30 p.m. opening—the affordable, distinctive food more than lives up to the hype. A welcome West Coast import to the downtown dining scene, Mission Chinese Food provides some of the most innovative food in the city at an impressively low price.