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Mission Chinese – Finally Americanized Chinese Food Done Right (Part 1)

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**For full post and pics**: https://www.lauhound.com/2012/12/miss...

The term “Americanized Chinese” conjures up thoughts of cheap take-out food featuring gloppy sauces, unidentifiable fried meats and fun names like General Tso’s chicken and moo goo gai pan. However, while many “foodies” may act like it’s a sacrilegious, for many it has a nostalgic quality about it and I have many friends who really like having this type of food from time to time. That said you’d be hard pressed to find someone who really thinks of this type of food as cuisine that you would go out of your way for. The problem is that mentality this has created this idea that this is actually what Chinese food is like (i.e. basically cheap, greasy food). Besides the fact that saying “Chinese food” is kind of ridiculous because it’s literally like saying European food, it’s really created this stigma that people can’t get over and to a certain degree it’s created this self-perpetuating cycle because many restaurants think that’s what customers expect.

This has finally started to breakdown as people have become more educated on Chinese food via the media and as authentic Chinese food has become more readily available. However, in terms of Americanized Chinese, I did not grow up eating Americanized Chinese food and it holds no nostalgic quality for me and most attempts to make fusion Chinese food have generally been awful in my experience. So is it possible to make good Americanized Chinese food? I think the answer is yes as places like Mission Chinese are making great food that is not authentic Chinese, so it truly is Americanized Chinese.

The restaurant is a tiny space on Orchard and looks like a take-out joint up front and opens up into a small room with fluorescent lights in back. The wait times are ridiculous at 2-3 hours at peak times and so you constantly see lines out the door. However, luckily I live close enough to get take-out from here and I just call in my order and pick it up 20-30 minutes later. I haven’t actually eaten in the restaurant since I don’t want to wait, so it’s tough for me to comment on service.

Here’s what we got:

Thrice Cooked Bacon:
This is one of the signature dishes. Its chunks of bacon stir fried with rice cakes, tofu skin, bitter melon, chili oil and fermented black bean. It tastes exactly as it sounds and was surprisingly quite ma la (numbing and spicy). I’d read that this place makes stuff quite ma la and it did live up to its reputation. I liked the tofu skin and rice cakes as well; they provided a nice textural balance to the dish. Also, as a word of warning this dish is quite salty although it’s salty in a good way. Overall, this was a very good dish. 8.25/10

Kung Pao Pastrami:
This was another signature dish. Its chunks of pastrami, which I believe they get from Katz’s, stir fried with peanuts, celery, potato and chili oil. This was also quite ma la although more la (spicy). It was also a bit of a salt bomb since pastrami itself is quite salty, but it tasted really good with rice. It had decent wok hay, which is the smoky flavor you get from stir frying in a very hot wok. Overall, this was another very good dish. 8.25/10

Stir Fried Sweet Peas:
These were individual peas, pickled ramps and chili oil. I thought it was a really well prepared dish as I found the flavor of the sauce to be excellent and was also again nicely ma la. However, I thought I was ordering pea pods and I don’t really like sweet peas, so while I thought it was a very good for a sweet pea dish, I don’t really sweet peas so it’s hard for me to be really constructive on this dish. If you like peas you should try this dish. 7.25/10

Fresh Tofu Poached In Soy Milk:
This was interesting, it was tofu in a bath of soy milk with spicy fermented bean paste (dou ban jiang). The tofu was just regular tofu and the soy bean milk was quite milky in flavor probably more so than usual. It was actually quite a light and refreshing dish, which was a nice contrast to the other dishes. The dou ban jiang was salty and spicy and the fermented flavor went well with the dish. Overall, I thought it was a reasonably tasty dish and a good compliment to the other dishes. 7.75/10

Mapo Tofu with Pork Shoulder:
This was the last signature dish and was probably the most normal tasting dish in that it tastes reasonably similar to an authentic version of mapo tofu. It was quite ma la, oily and salty. I’d say that it was probably a little more salty than normal, but not in a bad way. The pork shoulder was different since you normally use ground pork, but I liked that a lot because the pork was pretty decent quality. The other thing that was different is that they use a more firm tofu as opposed to a silky tofu. I liked the tofu, but I prefer silky tofu. Overall, this was very good and definitely worthy of being a signature dish. 8.25/10

Beijing Vinegar Peanuts:
These were roasted peanuts in the skin with smoked garlic, anise and rock sugar in black vinegar. I was hoping these would be more similar to the ones at BaoHaus which I really like. However, these were just so so, they just tasted like regular roast peanuts in some vinegar. 6.75/10

Stir Fried Pork Jowl and Radish:
Jowl are the cheek and are similar to pork belly or thick cut bacon. This dish was jowl stir fried with fermented black bean, shiso and mint. I could see where they were going with this dish, but this was one of the duds for me. I felt like it was just a bunch of ingredients put together, but they didn’t meld well. In particular I thought the shiso and mint were totally out of place with the black bean. So while it was an ok dish, it wasn’t something I’d go out of my way to order. 6.75/10

Barley Rice:
This is just rice with barley in it, but for some reason I found it particularly tasty. It was cooked very nicely, slightly al dente and the barley gave it a slight bit of flavor and it tasted great with the other food. 8/10

Overall, I enjoyed Mission Chinese a lot and I have a lot of respect for what Danny Bowien and Anthony Myint have done.

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  1. Great review, Lau! You might like their cod fried rice, too.

    One small correction: l'm pretty sure that they make their own pastrami.

    1 Reply
    1. re: howdini

      oh really? i thought they got it from Katz's, its tasty pastrami either way

    2. Excellent review. For the first time I want to go back. And, yes, I also have nostalgia for old-time Sino-American, but get too caught up into the trap of authenticity

      1 Reply
      1. re: swannee

        haha its kind of funny b/c its become taboo to admit you like it, but whatever if it tastes good it tastes good...i like lots of stuff that i probably only like bc i grew up with it

      2. Nice review, Lau...but I think you're missing some really great dishes that they don't offer for take out.

        As well as some sweet service - once you get a seat.

        6 Replies
        1. re: mitchleeny

          any specific dishes? ill give them a try

          1. re: Lau

            I'd certainly start with the sizzling cumin lamb breast and the steamed egg custard. Move on to the Chongqing chicken wings and that chow fun soup. These are on the current menu, but I'm sure are subject to change.

            1. re: mitchleeny

              ah thanks, ill give them a try

              btw i thought u could order everything to go that is on the menu?

              1. re: Lau

                No, sadly. They have a section of the menu that is dine-in only...

                http://www.missionchinesefood.com/ny/

                1. re: mitchleeny

                  ahh well ill make it there soon, im hoping the hype dies down a bit...although i mean realistically i could put my name down and go home and watch TV and then come back or just go really early

                  1. re: Lau

                    They're open for lunch, too.

        2. Mission Chinese is well covered in this thread. Deepfy7 reports that he was told by an employee that they make their own pastrami.

          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/850224

          3 Replies
            1. re: Lau

              I swear at some point I read it was Katz's pastrami. Oh well.

          1. I thought the thrice cooked bacon verged on salty in a bad way. If it was possible at all to cut the saltiness down even just a notch or two, I think it would have been much, much better.

            1 Reply
            1. re: villainx

              yah it was on the verge, but i generally like saltiness in sichuan style food so it was ok with me. however, i could see how people could feel it was too salty

            2. Enjoyed your review.

              A bit OT, but it seems you wanted to separate what Mission Chinese are doing, from the Egg Foo Young or General Tso's generation, in which case the blurring of the term "Americanized Chinese" strikes me as confusing, unless there's another term for the food cooked by Chinese immigrants for Americans, that we've come to know as "Americanized Chinese".

              We also have to remember there was a period of fine dining where American chefs were prone to making what they thought was Chinese food, with a Wok Cooking trend, and a Chicken Salad with crispy noodles ending up on every other California Cuisine menu.

              24 Replies
              1. re: sugartoof

                yah i got a bit backed up, so im kind of late reviewing this, but better late than never

                i think basically what i wanted to separate is that america has come up with its own version of Chinese food. However, the original version (egg foo young etc) which was actually invented by Chinese immigrants trying to suit tastes to an American palate created this idea that that is what actual chinese food is like (cheap, low quality, greasy food). However, places like Mission Chinese are redefining what American Chinese food and creating something that is much higher quality.

                1. re: Lau

                  Maybe the quality of the typical Chinese food in NY has declined in the last 20 years or so, but I think the distinction is the focus on regional dishes, with more heat. Still, I don't see that as all that different than what Peng Jai did when he helped popularize, if not redefined, General Tso's.

                  Still, it's more relatable for you, which is interesting.

                  1. re: sugartoof

                    hmm interesting, i mean i wasnt here 20 years ago although i would find it odd to think that Chinese food has gotten worse here given that the number of Chinese has increased significantly over that time period (i think that would go for most of the US in general actually). I can tell you that Chinese food in LA is markedly better now than it was when i was growing up and I think its very likely b/c there are just alot more Chinese in LA now.

                    peng jai came up with a single dish (which may have been delicious if you were to try the original version he cooked himself although clearly ive never had it and its not something i particularly like today), but i think you'll be somewhat hard pressed to find other examples of high quality americanized chinese food developed over that time frame, so i think what Mission Chinese is doing is somewhat unique at least in our more recent timeframe

                    1. re: Lau

                      I wouldn't characterize the majority of Chinese options as "cheap and greasy", but I do think it's notable that many of the places championed on CH within the last 3 years have dropped off entirely or just okay at the moment. I think there's been a decline, but I order the Americanized dishes, and that's what I prefer, so we're almost talking about different cuisine styles...but finding good versions of the Americanized dishes can be difficult.

                      So my take on Mission Chinese Food's (SF incarnation) is that it was never inventive at all, and wouldn't translate to NY, beyond the flavor of the month or Chinatown Brasserie crowd... so It's interesting to not only read the raves, but read them from people like yourself, who are respected for their knowledge of the current Chinese food scene.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        alot of things to talk about here, so ill try to go through them one by one:

                        1) re: "cheap and greasy": maybe its just a difference in opinions, but most chinese food particularly in Manhattan i would categorize as that. take-out joints nearly across the board and even in Chinatown i find the food generally fairly greasy compared to how alot of the dishes are supposed to be made if you have them home cooked or in Asia

                        2) "many of the places championed on CH within the last 3 years have dropped off entirely or just okay at the moment" - we were discussing 20 years ago vs today rather the last few years vs today, however discussing your comment I think you need to bifurcate that statement:
                        - Manhattan: with the exception of sichuan food, I would agree with that statement mainly b/c Chinatown is falling off a cliff quickly as it's dying a fast death in recent times
                        - Flushing: I'd disagree as I think the food is actually getting better there and it's very reminiscent of what happened in LA / SF where the original chinatowns are shells of their former selves and have very little good food now. However new suburban chinatowns sprouted up as people made more money and wanted a higher quality of life and those new chinatowns have chinese food that far surpasses the original chinatowns

                        3) Mission Chinese's innovation: I find them to be rather innovative in the sense that they are using more american ingredients, but using some basic principles of chinese cooking to create something that is not authentic chinese food, but is still delicious

                        4) Also just to take a step back, I find the food at Mission to be quite tasty which is really the only that matters at the end of the day. I understand a certain backlash against the hype of people proclaiming it to be the best thing ever etc, but it still tastes good on an absolute basis.

                        5) Also, even talking about Chinatown Brasserie, there was this backlash against it b/c it was a) somewhat expensive and b) people thought it represented some bastardization / gentrification of chinese food, both of which were somewhat true. however, I found while there were certainly some large fusion duds there like cream cheese lobster sticks, there were actually dishes that were quite good and I actually was going review it, but then it closed.

                        1. re: Lau

                          Re. #2.... Lan Sheng, Szechuan Gourmet, Great Sichuan, all come to mind as some places that were heralded(and I've liked too) that then lost their luster....and then were good again for a minute, and then who knows. I've had great meals at all, but more often than not, they're just generic, so-so meals, and the spicing makes or breaks them as opposed to quality ingredients. These places are hit or miss, and do best with specialties, meaning they rarely execute their entire menus to great results. There seems to be a lot of fluctuations with their chefs. As a whole, when talking about Americanized dishes, they rarely rise above what many neighborhood places used to do, without fanfare. I guess this answers my own questions why Mission Street is so welcomed.

                          I can't speak on Flushing at all - one day I'll make it out. I like to imagine the superior Chinese places are all hiding there. Mission Street's gimmick has in part been mining those fringe areas for dishes.

                          3. What American ingredients stuck out for you?
                          I'm not qualified to know about barley outside of soups and teas, but the Pastrami is the only one that really sticks out, and we know where they got that idea from.

                          4. Without a doubt, if you enjoy the tastes, the rest of this doesn't matter too much. I was in the crowd that didn't like Chinatown Brasserie because it reminded me of a Panda Express (and not even a city location), or something I've been served at dinner parties by non-Chinese hosts. The flavors just weren't as bold as I like. There were certainly some good dishes there (I haven't found a better taro cake), and there was a lot of talk about the skills on display with the dumplings, etc. It's still a Chinese Chef preparing foods geared towards an American audience.

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            And what's different here is that, whatever it is, MCF isn't a Chinese Chef preparing foods geared towards an American audience. It's an American Chef preparing variations on Chinese dishes geared towards an American audience.

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              I am a regular at Szechuan Gourmet 56, and it is consistently excellent in my experience. However, it sounds like you're ordering American Chinese dishes there, and the one time I did, it was not very good. You do have to stick to Sichuan-style food there.

                              1. re: sugartoof

                                re: #2 with respect to Lan Sheng, I wrote a somewhat poor review about it a while ago and I've been back, but I never really had a great meal there so I never really properly re-reviewed it as I don't usually review restaurants unless I like them, I don't see the point in trashing them. Szechuan Gourmet and Great Sichuan haven't changed at all. Although re: what Pan said, I'm not sure what you're ordering there? They both suffer from the problem that most chinese restaurants in the US suffer from which is that they have these vast menus and if you don't know what to order there are definitely some big duds on the menu; realistically they should cut their menus down to the sichuan dishes they are actually good at making.

                                re: Flushing - you are missing the best chinese food in NY then, the vast majority of good chinese restaurants in NYC are in Flushing

                                re: #3 American ingredients: if you look at the menu you'll find alot of ingredients that are either not used or rarely used in chinese food. pastrami, pork jowl, carrots, shiso, mint, skate, confit (a technique rather than ingredient), sweet breads, peas, buckwheat noodles, terrine (technique not ingredient)
                                http://www.missionchinesefood.com/ny/

                                re: #4 Chinatown Brasserie - I mean clearly the interior to CB looks absolutely nothing like a Panda Express (which funny enough was founded by a Chinese immigrant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panda_Ex...), but what i think you are referring to was that it's not very "Chinese" with hosts / waiters who may not be chinese, its sort of upscale etc etc. That is somewhat of the fallacy of I'm talking about when I said "to a certain degree it’s created this self-perpetuating cycle because many restaurants think that’s what customers expect" b/c if you came with me to HK or Taiwan or Shanghai or any major Chinese city, I could take you to many restaurants that look nothing like any Chinese restaurant in the US that are upscale, have great service, use extremely high quality ingredients, not dead cheap etc etc and if the idea is that "real" chinese food has to be some dump with surly waiters etc I think that's somewhat silly. Not meant to be an attack, but I think the take-out joints and greasy downscale Chinatown places have really created this moniker that in order to be "real" chinese it's got to be some hole in the wall. Don't get me wrong, there are amazing hole in the wall places in Asia (many of my favorite specialists restaurants fall into this category), but the opposite exists as well and everything in between too

                                here's an example: here are pics of Lei Garden in HK, which i like, it's not my absolute favorite, but it's quite good, mid priced (probably like $35-40 pre drinks per person if you do dinner right here; no taxes in HK), nice atmosphere etc. I bet if something like this opened in NY (forgetting about the food for a sec) there would be a contingent that would automatically backlash and say this isn't authentic etc just b/c of how it looks etc and i think thats somewhat of a silly notion to judge a restaurant by, it should be judged by the food not an antiquated idea of what "authentic" means
                                http://hungryinbangkok.blogspot.com/2...
                                http://www.openrice.com/english/resta...
                                http://www.foodnut.com/250/lei-garden...

                                1. re: Lau

                                  Just picking up on your point about Szechuan Gourmet's menu: The reason they include so many American-Chinese items is that there are locals who order them.

                                  1. re: Pan

                                    re: szechuan gourmet - thats fair and if it sells + keeps them in business i'm fine with it, but speaking strictly from a food perspective i think these restaurants just offer too many dishes they aren't competent in. If you order the wrong things at these places you could come off thinking man the food at that place sucks (which is a theme I generally try to convey in my posts which is what to order b/c i think alot of people don't know b/c they dont have much experience eating these types of cuisines)

                                    1. re: Lau

                                      Of course I agree completely.

                                      1. re: Pan

                                        From the nytimes review, I got the sense that what Mission Chinese Food is succeeding at is elevating the "kitsch" of the old American-Chinese restaurants. The chef talked about being playful, but I would add that there's even a bit of irony, in that cooking that has long been disparaged as inauthentic (and thus to be avoided), is finally transformed, through an *infusion* of technique and vision, into something meaningful and palatable.

                                        This new multi-cultural food is interesting on its own terms, and there's no reason to presume that only certain a demographic will enjoy it.

                                        The issue of cultural appropriation is certainly present. I think it says a lot about cultural privilege when it takes a non-Asian chef to execute such a project, rather than your Lan Sheng's or Wu Liang Ye's being at the forefront of quality and innovation.

                                        Because when Lau is saying Finally it is Done Right, I completely feel his sentiment.

                                        And yes, the accusations of Mission Chinese Food (and other multiculture cuisines such as Momofuku Ssam Bar) being a culinary knock-off of its foreign heritage is well-heard. The message is that one should instead pilgrimage to Flushing for a sample of the "real thing". But I think there's a bit of insensitivity or tone-deafness in such an imposition.

                                        Why? Because this is the spectrum of Chinese Cuisine in New York City:
                                        1. Authentic - go to Flushing, etc, maybe a few in Manhattan
                                        2. Inauthentic - these shall remain unnamed
                                        3. High-quality, authentic - sorry, go to Vancouver, etc.
                                        4. High-quality (read: expensive), inauthentic - Hakkasan
                                        5. High-quality, "inauthentic" - Mission Chinese Food

                                        There's something for everyone.

                                        1. re: calf

                                          yah i agree with what you are saying. i mean clearly i love "authentic" chinese food, but its nice to have our own version that i personally enjoy too.

                                          its actually amazing how many cultures have their own version of chinese food such as korean, japanese, indian, peruvian etc (most of which i enjoy actually) and those are so different than the original and for a long time i thought our version was just not something i enjoy, so while different MC is bringing a version i like

                                          1. re: Lau

                                            Also Thai, Malaysian/Singaporean, Indonesian...

                                            1. re: Pan

                                              yah those too...although those are a bit different b/c they are predominately still made by chinese for chinese b/c the chinese areas are segregated or in singapore's case the chinese are the vast majority of the country

                                              many of the dishes are exactly the same as the original dishes or closely resemble the originals with some local influence usually the ingredients are slightly different inclusion of spicy peppers and things like that

                                              anyhow, those def some of my favorite food in the world

                                  2. re: Lau

                                    My point is that as someone who likes Americanized dishes, I see less quality in those new classics than I do finding the dishes that places like Szechuan Gourmet, and all those, supposedly do consistently. As I've said, I don't think they're that consistent, but there's no shortage of Szechuan, and say, if someone wants a cumin lamb dish, their introduction to it on a MCF menu shouldn't be under the impression it's revolutionary.

                                    Agree, I need to get out to Flushing.

                                    My comments about CB were based on the food, not the decor or ethnicity of the waitstaff.

                                    Finally, the ingredients:
                                    Pastrami - Credit to Red Farm. The cuts of meat, and brining aren't new techniques for Chinese cooking though.
                                    Pork Jowl - is pork cheek. Chinese aren't using pork cheek?
                                    Carrots - Standard filler in the US. Maybe a different root vegetable is preferential in China?
                                    Mint, Shiso, Buckwheat - Asian ingredients, and Pan-Asian fusion isn't new.
                                    Peas - Snow and snow peas aren't new.
                                    Sweet Breads - Served at every Chinese wedding I've been to, but maybe that's a region US thing.

                                    Picking apart their menu for ingredients doesn't negate the food so much as challenge the concept or the idea they're serving innovative food.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      re: Americanized dishes - that's fair; taste is a completely intangible thing with no right or wrong point of view and if you enjoy the classic Americanized Chinese food then that is totally fine and you should enjoy it. For me, I didn't grow up eating it and something like MC is something i like much more than the classic Americanized Chinese.

                                      re: CB - agree to disagree, i dont find how the comparison to Panda Express really fits into the equation as i dont find the foods even remotely similar

                                      re: ingredients / innovation - agree to disagree, i find what they are doing quite different than what is generally available in the US, but i guess innovation is somewhat in the eye of the beholder anyhow

                                  3. re: sugartoof

                                    If you prefer American Chinese there is no need to come to flushing

                                    1. re: AubWah

                                      Well that's one reason it hasn't been a priority, but my idea of American Chinese is by way of the West Coast, which is slightly different. Anyway, I like good food using fresh ingredients, not masked.

                        2. re: sugartoof

                          Yes, "Americanized Chinese food" has a fairly specific definition. Perhaps something like American style Chinese food would be a good label. And Mission Chinese is certainly far tastier than Americanized Chinese food. An interesting term has just emerged in the San Gabriel Valley where a Chinese operated "farm to table" restaurant has just opened. They refer to it as American fusion food.

                          1. re: Chandavkl

                            oh yah? what restaurant? maybe ill check it out next time im at home

                              1. re: Chandavkl

                                hmm didn't sound like you liked it very much and looking at the menu i mean it doesn't even look like it's trying to be Chinese rather some pan-asian type of cuisine. Almost nothing on this menu even really has chinese influence, it technically has almost more japanese influence than Chinese. the only things on this menu that even have remote chinese influence are the black pepper steak and Singapore curry
                                http://www.farmcuisinerestaurant.com/...

                        3. Mission Chinese seems to be just eat in or takeout, no delivery. Is that right?

                          2 Replies
                            1. Is there a day or time that alleviates the crazy lines? I'm so interested in trying the menu but would rather keep my sanity...

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: calf

                                They take some reservations by email.

                                1. re: kathryn

                                  To me, mission Chinese is not American Chinese, it's hipster Chinese

                                2. re: calf

                                  its def alot less crowded at lunch as i walk by it sometimes during the lunch hour, but thurs-sun night its usually pretty jammed with alot of people waiting outside

                                3. Nice review and very nice blog. Need more pizza and more Armanian posts please ;)

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Ziggy41

                                    haha i actually thought about trying to eat at every major pizza place in NY and posting about that as i do really like pizza alot

                                    armenian: i like armenian food alot, but there isn't much available here (i ate it alot back at home in socal as there is a large armenian population in LA / OC)

                                    1. re: Lau

                                      He admits to knocking off dishes. That's notable.

                                    2. Finally went about 10 days ago. Overall a mixed bag but now that I know what I like I think I'll enjoy it more next time.

                                      Liked: Salt Cod Fried Rice, Kung Pao Pastrami (so good), Mapo Tofu (wow)

                                      On the fence: Chongqing Chicken Wings. After the Tofu this felt a bit too intense for my palates.

                                      Didn't care for: Thrice cooked bacon - Felt this was all about those "I cant believe its not potatoes Rice cakes" which took over the plate with a little bit of ok bacon. Maybe the bacon needed to be cooked some more ;)
                                      Cumin Lamb - I understand this is "Cumin" lamb but the seasoning was a bit overwhelming.