Here’s the secret to enjoying a meal at Mission Chinese: go during lunch. It’s probably a great dinner spot, but hey, 1-2 hour wait for a table is enough to scare any busy New Yorker (free beer notwithstanding). The white-hot popularity of this place is no surprise. Mission Chinese is an import from San Francisco, where it gained a fervent following and critical praise that’s only grown since its opening in New York in May. Chef Danny Bowien’s Americanized spin on notoriously spicy Sichuan fare results in creative dishes that even impressed Pete Wells at the New York Times. You don’t need to know about the restaurant to notice a buzz around 154 Orchard Street, if you happen to walk by on a Friday evening.
At around 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, though, the scene was entirely mellow. We were seated immediately, and led through the tiny takeout area, down a narrow corridor past the steaming kitchen, into a skylit dining room with communal tables. The crowd contained a mix of Asian faces, a good sign for an Americanized Chinese restaurant this close to Chinatown. We inquired about the thrice-cooked bacon dish, since it had two ominous flame icons affixed to it on the menu. Our server said this translated to a spice level of 7/10, and they could try to tone it down a little, though she could make no guarantees.
I started off with an appetizer, smashed cucumbers with salted chili, sesame paste, and garlic ($4). The best starters are a taste of things to come, and this played the part nicely–the cool, slightly briny cucumbers contrasted with the kicky chili, and loads of garlic almost sent it over the top. Almost, but not quite. Our dishes arrived piecemeal after that, and here was one slip-up–each entree was sized for two people, so we ordered too much. The thrice-cooked bacon ($12) could have fed three Snackishes. But on the upside it was unlike anything I’ve tried, with its mix of savory textures–tender yet springy rice cakes soaking up hot chili oil, smokey pork belly rippled with fat (as opposed to traditional bacon), slightly sweet fried tofu skin, black beans, and a pile of cilantro and scallions. My spice intervention was probably a good idea, as this registered as a 3-4/10 on first bite, but climbed to a slow-burning 5/10 by the time I finished. I should have tasted the stir fried sweet peas with numbing chili and pickled onions before digging into the thrice-cooked bacon because nothing else registered on my taste buds afterwards.
What will keep me coming back are the prices. For a unique and flavorful dish that you can split, $12 feels like outright thievery, especially in this neighborhood. People with different spice comfort levels and vegetarian requirements will find something here, and it’s easy to find a nearby bar to drink at while you wait for a table, making it a great cheap date choice. Arriving with a group should probably be avoided, although they do take reservations for some tables.
And if you’re a Twin Peaks fan, be sure to check out the bathrooms. A restaurant with a sense of humor? I’m sold.
154 Orchard Street between Rivington St. and Stanton St.
Open for lunch 12pm-3pm Dinner 5:30pm-12am. Closed Wednesdays.