Chef Danny Bowien has had the Midas touch when he turned to producing his version of Chinese food, first in San Francisco and then in New York City at his Mission Chinese Food Restaurants. He has now extended that touch to his view of the world of Mexican food. No one will ever mistake the Mission restaurants for fine dining, but that is not the point. Bowien’s food, Chinese inspired, Mexican inspired or probably anything is nothing if not full flavored, offal rich, anarchic, exuberant, and as I described Mission Chinese, just plain fun.
I went with my family to celebrate my son and Docsconz contributor, L.J. Sconzo’s birthday. We arrived at 7 coming in from a heavy rain to find a busy and boisterous small restaurant in full throttle. With enough time to order cocktails, we had a reasonable wait for a table to open.
The cocktail list is small and with a few exceptions aren’t particularly “Mexican”, but they are quite good. With Micheladas, a Dirty Horchata, Jarritos Mandarina and my L’il Luche in hand, we made our way to a table that would have ben comfortable for four, but was a stretch for five. My L’il Luche with a base of Korean Soju enlivened by pineapple, yuzu, calpico and spice may not have truly had a right to exist on the menu of a Mexican restaurant was simply to delicious to quibble over. It had bright fruit, but was well balanced and VERY easy to drink. The other cocktails at our table didn’t seem to have any problems going down either.
The menu at Mission Cantina is fairly large and I wanted to try a reasonable sampling of it. We ordered one thing off the appetizers, two orders of each of the meat tacos, a side and one of the dishes “to share.” We shared them all, which, at least when it comes to tacos, is not the easiest strategy to execute. We are family, though, so we managed to get through what might otherwise have been a very difficult split amongst five.
Spiced peanuts were on the table as a snack while we waited for the food to start pouring out from the kitchen. Tasty, they were.
The guacamole with chicharrones was the first dish to arrive at the table. Competently executed, the avocado was augmented by sweet and smoky pickled chipotles. The chicharrones were good, but this dish is not the reason to go to Mission Cantina. For real guac junkies there are a number of better and more delicious renditions in the city. The chips and salsa that came along with it were also fine, albeit unexceptional.
The substantial chicken liver tostada is a reason to go to Mission Cantina, though, and a good one. Fried chicken livers were piled on a bed of creamed white beans and pickled morita chiles, all atop a crisp fried corn tortilla. This was a dish that wasn’t the least bit shy about flavor and texture. At Mission Chinese, my recollection of the meal was centered around the generous use of Szechuan chile peppers. The dishes at Cantina, while not lacking in taste bud stimulation, were not at all comparable in terms of heat. This was not going to be a Mexican run and gun firefest.
The most heat, still mild by Mission Chinese standards, came in the form of the chicken wings with molé spices, chile vinegar, sesame and crema. With wings that must have come from giant chickens, the bright and broad flavors rolled in and out one after another. This was a dish that had it all. If there was one “must” dish that we had that night, for me, it was these wings, as delicious as any that I can recall.
The tacos started coming out like the chocolate’s on Lucy’s factory line. It took all I could manage to take a couple of quick pics, divvy them up and eat them to create more space on the burgeoning table. Not gigantic, but not teeny-tiny either, the accumulation proved to be a lot of food. Confited pork shoulder carnitas were served with crispy jowl and pork cracklings for a satisfying nibble. They co-inhabited a plate with pulled lamb shoulder with coriander and crema.
Barbecue lamb rib tacos arrived with rib bones in place. This required surgery for sharing, but that would have been necessary to eat them as a taco too. Fortunately, the surgery was a success and these tasty, meaty morsels were fully recovered for ingestion.
“Al pastor” tacos of rotisserie pork belly with fermented pineapple layered on top shared a large plate with tacos of the “Alambres” tacos of grilled beef brisket, smoked bacon, queso oaxaca, peppers and onions.
Spiced peanuts made tacos of beef tongue with charred onions and pickled tomato something special.
The only tacos that disappointed me were the ones that shared a plate and contained seafood. I found neither the chicken wing braised octopus with onion relish nor the spicy shrimp with crispy beef tripe to be as exciting as I expected them to be. They were fine, but not special other than through the descriptions.
Perhaps my favorite of the tacos, though was the fish taco with skate wing tempura, avocados and crema. This could have transported me to Baja.
Last, but not least was the “to share” dish of rotisserie short ribs with grilled romaine lettuce, lemon, chile and herbs. This was a mountain of meat that by this time of the meal intimidated us with its burly size. It was ultimately a beautiful thing, though. We couldn’t finish them that night, but the leftovers made a fine, fine lunch the following afternoon.
Mission Cantina, like its sister restaurants is loud, casual, cramped, colorful and chaotic, but like its sister restaurants, one that either despite or because of all of those things, manages to work and work quite well. It works because the food is fun, familiar enough, but still creative and personal and ultimately really, really tasty. The food is spirited enough to make all of the experience a total party. It’s a great spot for those who are celebrating youngish birthdays as well as those who enjoy celebrating youngish birthdays. ¡Viva el Bowien!