Psychedelic chicharrones by way of the South and Japan.
For the past two months my fellow ink- and grease-stained wretches have all been abuzz about Danny Bowien’s new spot Mission Cantina. I’m still smarting from the loss of Mission Chinese, but decided to put my sorrow aside and check out his new joint. The first thing I noticed was that it gets really crowded on a Saturday night. The second was the comforting aroma of fresh masa. I tried several of the teeny tiny tacos—my favorite was the suaderos ($6.50), beef brisket braised in lard—but the dish that really made me sit up and take notice was the chicharrones ($7).
Crackling—whether chicken, duck, or, in this case, pork—is one of my favorite snacks. Bowien’s airy sheets of blistered pork skin get a Japanese/down home spin thanks to the addition of togarishi pepper and pimento cheese. Salty, crunchy, cheesy, and spicy I could not stop eating them. On my next visit I think I’ll try the creamed masa with spicy collard greens and get some of Bowien’s psychedelic crackling to throw on top.
Why opt for one type of smoked fish on your bagel when you can have three.
I didn’t grow up with the Jewish appetizer platter in my household. Every now and then though the old man would get some sable or lox, and I developed a taste for smoked fish. Occasionally I will get a sable and cream cheese sandwich at one of the local bagelries in my neighborhood. When I’m feeling especially decadent I’ll head to Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 99-year-old temple of appetizing makes a little forshpayz they call the meshugge ($20.75). It consists of a trifecta of smoked fish—sturgeon, sable, and salmon on a bagel or bialy—with cream cheese. This decadent bagel sandwich is worth every penny. Call me crazy, but I’ve a feeling I’ll be visiting R&D some time in the very near future.
Andy Ricker’s phat Thai is served on a banana leaf.
Spaghetti and meatballs is a dish I never order in a diner, because it is always terrible. Same goes for pad Thai, not that I’ve ever seen it served in a diner. It’s just that I’ve never had a good version of the dish so I never order it. Or at least I never did until I paid a visit to Pok Pok Phat Thai. Andy Ricker’s Lower East Side noodle house changed my opinion of the dish. In the phat Thai thamadaa ($8), rice noodles are fried in pork fat with tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts, dried shrimp, dried tofu, egg, garlic chives, bean sprouts, and chili powder. Thai spicy does not exist at this noodle joint. Per a sign on the wall “all dishes are prepared so that the seasoning can be adjusted to your taste (prung roht). Please use the condiments khruang prung…” And use them I did doctoring up the flat noodles with fish sauce and ground chili. Slurping the pork fat slicked fry-up as a mix of Thai covers of 1970s hits, including “25or 6 to 4” and “Boogie Nights”played was pure bliss.
Shocking and intense—like my passion for Danny Bowien’s food.
The other night I asked Danny Bowien, the blonde-haired madman behind Mission Chinese Food to marry me. I’d just finished the meal pictured above—thrice cooked bacon ($12), tingly tea smoked chicken ($9), and Beijing beef pancake—while seated at the bar at MCF NYC under the light of a scarlet dragon. As I paid the check my mouth was still buzzing from the Sichuan peppercorn and chilies.
“Danny Bowien will you marry me,” I asked poking my head into the kitchen. “I’m already married,” he said. “If you were a polygamist you could cook for me,”I responded. I can just imagine it. Bowls of the Sichuan-peppercorn dusted fried tripe that comes with MCF’S chicken wings; kung pao lamb pastrami for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and mapo tofu for when I have a cold. I suppose it’s too much to ask for, which is why I can often be found seated alone at the bar underneath the red dragon that winds its way through the dining room. I eat at MCF alone for two reasons: a) I am greedy and b) I like to eat the leftovers for lunch the next day over rice. Once I ate there with five or six fellow food writers. We all fell quiet as we dug into Bowien’s explosively spiced food. All I could think about was how those tripe garnished wings were on the far side of the table—and whether I’d get my share.
A better look: Beijing beef pancake, thrice cooked bacon, and tingly tea smoked chicken.
“You work within your limitations,” a guy with a camera much better than mine said when asked how he takes photos in the scarlet-hued light of what I like to call the Red Planet. The only other restaurant that was as difficult to shoot food in was the purple spaceship of a Thai joint called Kurve in the East Village. Speaking of limitations mine do not include the inability to appreciate authentically inauthentic and vibrant spins on Chinese food such as Bowien’s. I have a friend who holds that, “Mission Chinese is a crude parody of Sichuan food for people who can’t be bothered to develop a palate for the real thing.” I am fortunate enough to have developed a palate for both.
I expected the beef pancake to be just that, a flat griddled cake, a gussied up scallion pancake of sorts. Nevertheless I rolled with the presentation: sushi-like roulades of flatbread filled with confit of beef shoulder and potatoes and topped with salted chilies. The tingly tea smoked chicken was as advertised, silky morsels of poached and smoked bird that left my mouth humming from the “chili sediment” and Sichuan pepper. The incendiary thrice-cooked bacon with chewy rice cakes, black beans,and winter melon was also excellent.
Danny, if you’re reading this my proposal still stands. If not I’ll see you on the Red Planet.