Mission Chinese in the LES
I find it fairly amusing (or maybe I find it just ironic) that in a neighborhood adjacent to Chinatown there is a Chinese restaurant that draws bigger crowds than the "real" guys, even at noon on a Saturday. Mission Chinese is just that restaurant and I'm just as guilty as everyone else for thronging to the pretend take-out shop.
Several years ago I had eaten at the original location in San Francisco's Mission district. My first dinner there was in its early days, when it was a pop-up with guest chefs and varying menus. I also ate there when it had settled into its current vision–a playful but serious Chinese food restaurant using any part of the animal possible–the brainchild of chef Danny Bowien.
I walked up to Mission Chinese about ten minutes after twelve and added myself to the line of about ten parties. I'd suggest if you want to be sure you're in the first seating that you get there at 11:45am and then you can probably assure yourself a spot. Of course I'm talking about winter, it might not be as easy in warmer weather. We wound up having to wait about 45 minutes, significantly less then the dinner wait which can be up to two hours. They take your phone number so you can always wander and shop.
The menu is dense with meat options but also plenty of ways to stay vegetarian and even a few ways to remain vegan. We ordered the 5-spice beef tendon salad, smashed cucumbers, Hainanese eggplant, sizzling cumin lamb breasts and steamed amaranth greens in a walnut miso broth. And yes, we had leftovers.
I'll start with the exceptional. The smashed cucumbers, liberally drenched and mashed with sesame paste, salted chili and garlic were mushy, liquidy and delicious–yet still managing to retain a bit of cuke crunch. They would have been perfect added into a lavash sandwich or on a big plate of rice with curry. The lamb breasts came bone in, sizzling on a hot plate atop a bed of onions, long beans and watercress. The lamb meat pushed off the bone with just a nudge from my fork. The cumin mixed with the pickled and the grilled vegetables was an addicting taste and a hard one to stop. I would order this dish again. I would order it as take-out. I would eat it off my neighbors plate. The third addicting item was a soup dish with greens swimming in a hearty, nutty miso and walnut broth. There was a slight grit swimming at the bottom but I enjoyed the element of earth to each spoonful. If I'm ever sick again I'll want this instead of chicken soup. Until now I'd only known amaranth as a grain, but the greens, commonly looked at as weeds, were great. They were like a grown up version of maché.
And now for the ok and not too bad but not so good I want to finish the dish. The cold five-spiced beef tendon salad had a great cool flavor with lots of cilantro, which I love. The beef tendon itself was interesting. Like a mix of eating hard gelatin and beef gravy mixed together and formed back into a meat shape. It was less flavorful then it was uniquely textured. The Hainanese eggplant was tangy and good, but not amazing. In my research the best I can come up with for what Hainanese refers to is the addition of scallion and green onion. I have leftovers of this as well so I'm going to sample this again and see if I can come to a decision of whether I liked it or not. I think these two dishes side-by-side did not work together. Bygones. My last note is that sesame seems to be on and in everything, so beware if it's not something you like.
For a crowded hot spot this restaurant has retained its low budget charm. The waitstaff are friendly and funny and the chefs will even peak their heads out of the small window to thank you for coming. It's definitely worth a few visits so you can make your way through their dense menu. If you do go let me know what you love.
Bonus points: Chef Danny Bowien will be talking with Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach at the Tenement Museum on February 12th. Get your tickets here.