The perfectly fried and plump chicken wing I bit into seemed like it carried on itself more Szechuan Peppercorn than I had previously eaten in my entire life. My lips, my throat, indeed it seemed as if my entire body had become numbed with electric heat of those magical grains of ground spice. These are fascinating morsels. I don’t usually bring my medical experience to bear on culinary matters, but these peppercorns remind me of a class of narcotics called agonist/antagonists. These drugs supply pain relieving narcotic effects, but only up to a point, at which they start working against themselves. The theory is that they provide an additional margin of safety that isn’t there with conventional narcotics. So for the Szechuan peppercorn too. These peppercorns provide plenty of heat and spice of their own, but because of their numbing effects, they allow for tolerance of even more fiery chiles, that just wouldn’t be the case without them.
The ChongKing Chickenwings were one of the earliest dishes brought to us after we (Gabe Ulla, Adam Goldberg & Peter Merelis) sat down at a small table in Chef Danny Bowien’s raging import from San Francisco and asked the kitchen to send out food until we could eat no more. They set the early tone with their initial heat, augmented by a few other dishes incorporating the electro-shocking peppercorns. Of course, we had asked for it, when we responded, “spicy” to the question of “how hot” put to us when we ordered. The experience was masochistic in the only spicy food can be – it was pain that brought pleasure. The sense of heat and its pleasure may have seemed that much stronger due to the slightly surreal atmosphere of the dark, red-lit dining room. The capsaicins stimulated production of our own endogenous endorphins. This was “feel good” food in a feel good setting reminiscent of an old time Opium den (not that I’ve personally ever been to one). Like all the best Chinese food in this country, this is absolutely crave-worthy.
The following dishes may have been really spicy or not. The szechuan peppercorn dust did not mask flavor, but the rest of the dishes were all easier to handle. It was a good thing too, because we ultimately tried most of the recently changed menu.
Plenty of the famous dishes were still there. The Kung Pao Pastrami exploded with flavor. The dish was packed with peanuts, possibly the most common ingredient of the meal outside of the Szechuan peppercorns and pickling acids.
Peanuts came in their own dish too, suffused with Beijing vinegar, smoked garlic, anise and rock sugar.
These peanuts did double duty when added to the already very tasty Salt Cod Fried Rice. The vinegary and spicy nature of the crunchy peanuts balanced well with the salty and soft elements of the rice. This was Gabe’s suggestion to try. It wasn’t his first rodeo at Mission Chinese Food as it was for the rest of us. Good suggestion.
The Broccoli Beef Brisket with Smoked Oyster Sauce used Chinese broccoli and the tenderest brisket I could imagine. Its beefy flavor melted onto our tongues.
BBQ pigtails had been bathed in smoked coke and served with white bread and pickles. At first bite, a touch sweet, but the smoke and the shear fun of nibbling the delicious porcine morsels off the tail bones made this one of my favorites of the evening. Ironically, it is also the one dish I don’t have a photo of.
Another dish that started one way and finished another was the Egg Egg Noodles, which turned out to be a Chinese interpretation of Pasta Carbonara. The dish had an initial familiarity that had been jarred by some of the initial spices that threw off my initial expectation, however, the more I ate, the more I appreciated the genius of this dish.
The Sizzling Cumin lamb Breast was the first plate brought to our table. It was redolent with the hypnotic aroma and flavor that versatile spice, while the lamb meat so graciously dropped off the rib anchors into our hungry and welcoming mouths.
Thrice Cooked bacon may have been my favorite dish of the night. The sensuously chewy Shanghainese rice cakes that were incorporated into the dish sopped up all the wonderful juices and melted bacon fats and were the perfect vehicles for the job.
Other early arriving dishes were the Tartine pickled carrots, The Smashed Cucumbers, Beer Brined Szechuan Pickles with Napa Cabbage, Chili Pickled Long Beans in Red Oil and the Tingly Tea Smoked Chicken, each of which helped contribute in varying degrees to the onslaught of the Szechuan peppercorn induced numbness and euphoria.
The amazing thing was that with all the heat, pickling and spice, the dishes still had plenty of individual character. They could all easily have blended into one flavor, but they didn’t. The Hainanese Eggplant, Beijing Beef Pancake and Spicy Scallop Sashimi all offered great variety of flavors and textures. It was a blast going from plate to plate. The table was so full the plate of scallops had to be be elevated to rest on the water bottle creating a multi-tiered dining surface.
Most of the meal was washed down with sake and beer, but one beverage that was particularly useful at the height of the heat was Calpico, a citrusy Japanese Yogurt soda. It did a great job of rinsing the excess capsaicins from the tongue and controlling the heat.
Whether you are Chinese or not, Mission Chinese Food is not your grandmother’s Chinese restaurant. Bowein and his crew have done a great job of fusing Chinese ingredients and a Chinese culinary sensibility with American products and influences from the United States and elsewhere in the world. Unlike some earlier iterations of Chinese American restaurants, there was no pandering to the stereotypical American palate and fear of flavor and exoticism. Bowein’s food explodes with flavor like a pack of Chinese made firecrackers going off on the 4th of July. His food is not subtle, but it is original and fun. It’s not the kind of food that provides its deliciousness in the apotheosis of the sublimity of a bite. Instead, Bowein’s food’s deliciousness comes from its slamming assault of a variety of flavors and textures and the stimulation that comes from knowing that one is definitely alive. Mission Chinese Food is a blast!
For additional photos see my Flick’r set.