Empire of the Burning Tongue: How Mission Chinese Food Perfectly Encapsulates Our Post-Locavore Moment
The sun is setting, shrouding the Lower East Side in a soft evening light, but the hair and nail salon directly above Mission Chinese Food casts an unflattering glow across the stretch of pavement where a gaggle of would-be diners bides their time. As usual, the wait is over two hours. Among the crowd outside 154 Orchard Street is a pair of middle-aged guys in loafers, hemmed jeans, and pressed button-downs who are leaning on a Cadillac Escalade like they own it. But most patrons are younger and have come here on foot, with time if not money to burn. Perched on a planter that provides the only seating is a fellow with a cotton kimono, complicated piercings, and a leg cast—the result, one feels safe assuming, of a fixed-gear bicycle incident. A young couple strolls up and stares quizzically at Mission’s forbidding exterior, a plate-glass window stenciled with some untranslated Chinese characters. “I thought it was, like, a restaurant,” the guy says to the girl. He’s not the first to be confused. The face Mission presents to the street is not that of the hot spot it is, but rather one of an iffy purveyor of spare ribs and duck sauce.
Six steps below sidewalk level is the small foyer that functions as Mission’s takeout counter, waiting area, and storage for stray 30-pound boxes of dry chile peppers. A second group of customers clogs this room, huddled around a Rubbermaid garbage can holding a sweating keg of Narragansett. The beer is free, but the city of New York says you can’t drink it on the sidewalk, and there’s space for only a handful of people to sip from the Dixie cups Mission hands out. It’s a self-selecting crowd: The heat emanating from the adjacent kitchen and the hip-hop throbbing from the house speakers give the waiting area the comfort level of a down-market discotheque. Getting to the beer is arduous enough that on many nights the restaurant won’t kick a single keg.
Above the gratis beer hangs the kind of backlit menu board more typically found in ethnic restaurants where nonnative speakers are encouraged to order by number. For the first four months Mission was in business, under that display hung a piece of tinfoil on which someone had scrawled “Please Wait 2 Be Seated” in Sharpie, as if management hadn’t anticipated the demand for tables and had to hastily fashion a sign to keep people from wandering into the packed dining room. But that could hardly have been the case. Though much about the restaurant feels improvised, it arrived in New York this spring from San Francisco surfing a sustained wave of hype. The original Mission Chinese opened in that city’s Mission district in 2010, as a pop-up restaurant nestled inside an existing Chinese establishment: Lung Shan, an unloved hole in the wall. But its take on Sichuan cooking—with dishes like thrice-cooked bacon and an Islamic lamb hot pot—quickly won praise from various deans of American food writing, Mark Bittman, Anthony Bourdain, and Alan Richman among them. Soon, Danny Bowien, Mission’s chef, was showing America how to prepare hand-pulled noodles on The Martha Stewart Show and scouting for a New York location.
He settled on the first space he saw. Six months later, the restaurant he opened in its inhospitable confines is still reliably thronged, somehow simultaneously a must-visit for finance types, freelance types, chowhounds, and food critics emeriti. (“Finally made it to NYC’s Mission Chinese,” Frank Bruni tweeted a couple of weeks ago. “Better even than I’d heard. Wow.”) A profile of Bowien in the December issue of GQ mentions the chef in the same breath as Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Like those impresarios, Bowien is eager to expand, and there are plans for an offshoot in Brooklyn, Paris, or that culinary capital Oklahoma City, where he grew up. Last week, he floated the idea of a Mission Burrito on Facebook. “WTF when?!” replied one fan, presumably already packing a tote bag for her first visit.
“It was kind of a joke,” Bowien says. “But New York does need to eat good burritos. It’s something I’ve been messing around with.” He stresses that any new locations or ventures remain tentative. “We have a couple of awesome leads, but I can’t say which one’s next because we’re still deciding. We’re a tiny company. It’s just, like, me. And a couple of other people.” But if Bowien can seem to be flying somewhat by the seat of his slim-fit pants in his nascent empire building, there’s nothing coincidental about his success. He and his restaurant arrived at a moment when some New Yorkers seem to be tiring of knee-jerk locavorism and all things rough-hewn, of places that rely on now-shopworn culinary and stylistic cues to announce that they are fashionable dining establishments. Mission, by contrast, adheres to no discernible set of rules and has to be experienced to fully appreciate its complicated appeal. But before you experience it, you have to wait. The wait is part of the experience, too.
Most nights, the woman with all the power is Anna. She’s the keeper of the clipboard, taking names and informing customers how long they can expect to cool their heels. A different kind of establishment, arriving in New York with high expectations and a mere 41 seats to offer, would have hired a seasoned professional to work the door. Anna is a sixth-year undergraduate at NYU who had never worked in a restaurant. Early on, she was quoting patrons waits of three, four, even five hours, not realizing that very few people would wait that long for a table, no matter how many times Mission was cooking its bacon. Nowadays, when the line stretches into a third hour, she politely turns customers away. Her estimates have grown more accurate, though there are still nights when the margin of error is plus or minus 30 minutes. She’s happy to call your cell when your table is ready. But don’t wander too far.
One night I get the call while sipping a pint of Hitachino at Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya, a block north on Orchard but a world away from Mission Chinese. (It’s well-appointed, sprawling, and empty.) My party hustles back to the restaurant, and Anna leads us to our table. The dining room is separated from the restaurant’s entrance by a narrow corridor where a long rectangular window opens onto the cramped kitchen. More often than not, if you look through this window as you pass by, you’ll see a skinny guy wearing his shaggy, blond-streaked mane loosely collected under a baseball cap. This is Bowien, perhaps the world’s least likely celebrity chef.
Bowien didn’t train at a renowned culinary school—he signed up, then dropped out—or apprentice himself to a master. He cut his teeth working the line in kitchens in New York and San Francisco, aspiring to be a cook, not a chef, and certainly not an impresario; his goal was just to work somewhere like Momofuku, not open a worthy rival. As he’s fond of noting, he’d never cooked Chinese food before launching Mission Chinese in San Francisco and had never opened a proper restaurant before Mission New York. He’s not even Chinese: He’s Korean, raised by adoptive parents in Oklahoma, where he fell in love with food watching cooking shows with his mother. He started off calling his cooking “Americanized Oriental food,” though he now prefers the term “weird Chinese.” He never considered attempting authentic Chinese cuisine; when a restaurant sells itself that way but doesn’t live up to the billing, he believes, “people will tear you apart.” Instead, Bowien takes classic Sichuan dishes and runs roughshod over the traditional preparation. They don’t eat kung pao pastrami in Chengdu.
One way to introduce yourself to Bowien without sticking out a two-hour wait is to watch a video produced by Vice as part of the magazine’s “Munchies” series. It depicts Bowien and several chef friends getting drunk on cheap beer, then gruesomely slaughtering live crabs for a stew. It’s a minor miracle no one loses a finger. “I don’t even remember cooking anything last night,” he says to the camera the next day.
“I can’t even tell what’s going on in my mouth right now,” says my dining companion, a law professor whose dream meal is a double order of crab rangoon. He’s been dipping into the mapo tofu, one of Mission’s signature dishes, which conjures sensations of heat but also an anesthetizing numbness. Having been victimized previously by the dish, I’ve been sampling it judiciously, fishing out the soft cubes of bean curd and letting the chili oil drain off before eating them. Soon arrives a plate of chicken wings sitting atop a nest of hot peppers and crispy tripe. I dive in and, feeling lucky, take a bite of one of the peppers. Cruelly, it doesn’t reveal its full force immediately, leading me to take another foolhardy nibble. When the spice does hit, no amount of beer or rice will calm its fury. Later, seemingly safe at home, the pepper will torment my innards and power feverish, hallucinatory dreams. (“Sichuan peppercorns,” GQ’s Brett Martin astutely observed, “are essentially drugs.”)
Not every dish on the menu is quite so devastating to the palette or GI tract, but many of the most popular entrées, the ones most eagerly discussed around the keg, have ominous double-flame icons next to them on Mission’s laminated menus. At Pok Pok, when you order Andy Ricker’s signature wings, your server will ask you how spicy you’d like them. “Not spicy” is an option. At Mission Chinese, tamping down a dish’s intended heat is not encouraged. And while the fiery items are always fiery, the kitchen can be terrifyingly inconsistent. Sometimes the thrice-cooked bacon is very spicy. Sometimes it’s untenable.
At first, I experienced the mind-altering heat merely as an all-out assault on my palate. But over the course of my visits, I came to realize that the spiciness is very much part of Mission’s popularity, even for those diners who lack an iron-plated esophagus. It presents a challenge, one that lends a trip to Mission a sense of adventure. Waiting by the keg or outside on Orchard, it’s not uncommon to overhear a repeat customer recounting his conversion experience with missionary zeal to a group of novices. Once inside the dining room, the spiciness inspires a feeling of camaraderie. Just how molten are the Mongolian long beans? A fellow diner with a sweaty nose and an opinion on the matter is rarely but a few feet away.
But Scoville units aside, the food is also good, and that obviously matters. Over the course of several months, I had five meals at Mission with seven different companions, and no one ever left disappointed. (One friend, stuffed to the gills and handed a takeout box heaping with leftover wings, texted a neighbor and arranged a late-night doggie-bag drop.) But it’s not merely a matter of being good. St. Anselm, the Williamsburg steakhouse, is good. It’s very good. And like Mission, it’s small, inevitably packed, and favored by the footloose. But while its size, clientele, and antebellum-lumberjack aesthetic (mounted saws, torn flags) set St. Anselm apart from the city’s grand steakhouses of old, its menu isn’t all that different from what you’ll find around the corner at Peter Luger: meat, potatoes, creamed spinach. At Perla, Gabriel Stulman’s newest West Village outpost, you can order some highfalutin junk food—a PB&J made with foie gras, a bowl of painstakingly seasoned potato chips—to nosh on during your server’s presentation on the provenance of the lamb chop which, noble as the farmer who slaughtered it may have been, is still a lamb chop. Bowien’s “weird Chinese” may not be authentically Chinese, but it is authentically weird. The “catfish à la Sichuan” that used to be on the menu was actually seasoned à la Baltimore, with Old Bay. The braised pig tails are marinated in smoked Coca-Cola.
The sense of adventure is further fostered by the space itself. The design playbook for new restaurants has yielded familiar aesthetic tics: Edison bulbs, Mason jars, Edison bulbs in Mason jars. Maybe some flea market bric-a-brac to telegraph the establishment’s obligatory lack of pretension. Maybe a chalkboard listing tonight’s selection of locally pickled cocktail onions, or some other detail worthy of a Portlandia sketch. At Mission, one wall bears a Technicolor Chinese painting depicting Communist leaders on horseback; another has a vintage Michael Jordan poster taped up with all the ceremony of a dorm-room adornment. Nearby hangs a giant wall calendar on which Bowien scrawls his upcoming commitments for all the world to see, less out of a belief in radical transparency than practicality: He can see it from the kitchen. At a time when so many restaurants look like they’re trying too hard, Bowien’s place distinguishes itself by appearing to barely try at all.
Another thing that makes Mission feel different are the prices. A single dish at Red Farm, the cleaner, brighter Chinese fusion restaurant on Hudson Street, can run you upwards of $25. At Mission, you can eat like a Qing Dynasty decadent for about the same amount. Indeed, overindulging is part of the experience: You wait two hours, you get very hungry, you get a little drunk, you order more than you can possibly eat, you find yourself pleasantly surprised at how cheap it all was. Then you bring the leftovers to a neighbor, who now owes you a favor.
One Tuesday morning, I make my way to Mission Chinese to meet Bowien. The place seems deserted. After knocking a few times, I try the front door, find it unlocked, and let myself in. Making my way toward the dining room, I run into Bowien as he’s heading into the kitchen. He introduces himself, then apologizes—he needs a few minutes. One of his cooks has called in sick. He needs to do some prep work before he can sit down to talk.
Bowien emerges from the kitchen about ten minutes later. He wears a faded T-shirt, short-shorts (a warm-weather Bowien trademark), and black oxfords with black socks pulled up over his calves. He’d look like a corporate attorney who has somehow misplaced his pants but for his copious tattoos, his clear-plastic-frame glasses, and that haphazardly bleached hair, which instead give him the look of an itinerant barista. He carries himself with an appealing diffidence, not the cocksure strut you might expect of a guy who’s rocketed to the top of the New York restaurant world. “I don’t get it sometimes,” he told me. “We’re just trying our hardest to make things good. But I feel like we are overrated in a lot of senses. I think that the food is delicious. But are we doing it better than 99 percent of the other restaurants out there? I don’t think so.”
He may look the part of the unassuming hipster, but as has been noted in the growing body of Bowien hagiography, he has a formidable work ethic, putting in 96-hour weeks. Seeing him on the job is also part of the Mission experience. Whenever he emerges onto Orchard Street, as he often does over the course of a night—to make a call on his iPhone, to run down the block to grab a bag of beef jerky for a mid-shift snack—a ripple of excitement passes through the huddled table-seekers. There’s nothing new, of course, about a rock-star chef leveraging his celebrity to keep his restaurant packed. But this is a different kind of act.
Talking with Bowien, it’s easy to see how he’s become a hero to the young people who make up what Adam Platt, in his Mission review, dubbed the No-Reservations Generation. He is driven without being a striver, ambitious without being careerist. And he’s more interested in the craft of cooking than the showmanship of being a chef. “I spent so many years just trying to flex as a cook and say I’m going to be the baddest line cook ever, have the sharpest knife,” he says. In 2008, when he was cooking Italian dishes at San Francisco’s Farina, he took his knives to Genoa, where he competed in the World Pesto Championship—and won. Then he grew restless and decided to start a pop-up Chinese place, for no other reason than Chinese was the food he most liked to eat on his days off. (And because he didn’t like that his friends couldn’t afford to eat at the fancier places he’d been cooking.) Barely two years later, Pete Wells would be raving about Mission Chinese in the Times: “Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues.” But it might be more apt to say that Bowien has done to cooking what Pavement did to rock: He showed you could be a virtuoso with the mien of a slacker.
Mission Chinese opened before securing a liquor license, so for the time being it’s just beer, sake, and a few house cocktails made with soju. Torrey Bell-Edwards, one of Mission’s bartenders, confirms that two of the cocktails—the One-Eyed Jack and the Great Northern—are named for fictional establishments from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a Bowien obsession (and a canonical work for members of the No-Reservations Generation). “We’re working on a new one,” he says. “A variation on the Arnold Palmer called the Laura Palmer.” The theme continues in the bathroom, where Bowien has jury-rigged an iPod to loop Angelo Badalamenti’s instrumental theme for the show and a framed portrait of Palmer hangs above the toilet. Since the restaurant opened, the Palmer picture has twice been stolen. The piece has no intrinsic value—it’s a jpeg from the web, blown up and printed out—but apparently some of Bowien’s fans want a souvenir.
Bell-Edwards surveys the dining room from under a San Francisco Giants fitted hat. I ask him if he followed Bowien from California, as many Mission staffers have. He did, though he didn’t work at the original location—he got to know Bowien by serving him drinks at the Elbow Room, a San Francisco bar. Politely, I ask him if he thinks it at all strange that Bowien would bring in a bartender all the way from California, despite having never worked with him. “He’d rather trust you and like you than worry about your pedigree,” he says. Anna, the hostess with no restaurant experience, is a friend of a Bowien friend.
Aubrey Hustead, the assistant general manager (whom regulars will recognize as the baby-faced guy wearing the Adidas headband), had worked at San Francisco outfits run by Bowien associates, but at 27 he’s hardly what you’d call an industry veteran. That Hustead and Bell-Edwards, as well as several of the wait staff, would return the chef’s trust and move across the country to take a job with a guy opening his first real restaurant testifies to the power of Bowien’s off-handed charm.
One day I visit with Bowien shortly before the lunch-hour rush. His staff buzzes around us, pulling down chairs from the dining room rafters, where they’re stored for the night—one of many work-arounds required to make this tiny space viable. “I went to Noma recently,” Bowien tells me. “There was this sense that everyone there was just pushing toward this common goal. The servers—everyone. Everyone was going to bat and trying to make something honest and good. That’s what resonates.” Mission could hardly be more different than René Redzepi’s spare, pricey Copenhagen mecca. But both embody their founders’ singular ideas of what a restaurant should be. Mission’s food reflects Bowien’s adventurous, irreverent tastes, and consequently some of it is going to toast your taste buds. The wait staff look like they were rounded up at a Hayes Valley bus stop and are prone to bringing you a bowl of rice porridge you didn’t order and forgetting the sizzling cumin lamb that you did. But they’re always in motion and unfailingly friendly—“Be nice” is another core tenet of Bowien’s belief system (and another rationale for importing people from California). Mission’s ambience, too, is pure Bowien, from the soundtrack (golden era hip-hop, metal) to the keg (“If people are going to stand here and wait, let them drink free beer”) to that vintage Jordan poster (“I wanted that poster when I was a kid and never got it”). The place isn’t for everyone, but it’s authentically its own, and that speaks to a clientele that’s learned to sniff out (thrift-) store-bought, hand-churned idiosyncrasy.
There’s a risk that as Bowien branches out, it will be harder to imbue each new place with his philosophy. (Also, you can’t fly back from Paris to man a wok every time a cook calls in sick.) This is a risk that any entrepreneurial chef would face, but it’s an especially acute one when your formula is a lack thereof, that exciting sense that you and your crew are making it all up as you go along. Bowien, though, seems constitutionally ill-suited for stasis. I arrived for an early dinner one night to find him sitting at one of the tables in the dining room, ear buds on his ears, working on changes to a menu that a long line of people were waiting outside to sample. Bowien explained that the tinkering is as much about keeping his staff happy as anything else. “I have to keep all these cooks motivated back there,” he said. “Cooks get very weary after a while. They want to make this food and next thing you know they want to make regional Italian food, so they go to another restaurant.” At Mission, the cook in charge is more restless than most.
*This article originally appeared in the December 3, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.