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Jun 18, 2013 09:58 AM

Mission Chinese Food: An Underrated Overrated Restaurant?

As usual, full review with photos on the blog:

When I first ate the food at Mission Chinese Food, I felt the food was very overrated. Not that it was bad per se, but just underwhelming given all the hype. As someone who grew up with both the more subtle flavors of Cantonese cuisine and the concentrated flavors of Shanghainese cooking, I found the flavor profiles too muddled in some of the items from Mission Chinese. Dishes seemed confused in their composition, unable to decide between the more traditional Chinese form of one dish among many to go with rice, and the Western style of each entree being specifically balanced to stand on its own. In addition to being somewhat muddled, in some dishes the actually pretty good underlying flavors and ingredients were just hidden by too much numbing spiciness. I do understand that authentic Sichuan food is often like that. But being authentic does not make it good. Food around the world is often made a specific way out of necessity, whether it be due to ingredient availability or for adapting to the climate, and not necessarily to maximize taste in a vacuum.

So yea, overrated. Although I have to admit, I only tried a handful of their more well-known items. Like many Chinese restaurants (although they refer to themselves as serving Americanized Oriental food), there are a lot of choices on the menu. But what separates them from many other places is that they continue to add new items to the menu. It is this continued innovation that I think is underrated. Even if your initial reaction was similar to mine, I think there's enough potential there that Mission Chinese Food has become a bit underrated in their ability to broaden their repertoire.

For some reason the pastrami had a really strong smoke flavor. Even when I've actually eaten at Katz's the smoke flavor was not as overpowering as the pastrami was here. This was a decent rendition of kung pao, but I just didn't see how the kung pao elevated the pastrami or vice versa.

The broccoli here is Chinese broccoli, which is one of my favorite vegetables. But there's nothing special about this dish. No real smokiness came through in the oyster sauce, and the brisket was a pretty fatty slab that wasn't as tender as I would have liked.

The pork jowls were tasty, but this was another dish where I thought things were muddled and had no real identity. The fermented black beans were strewn here and there, but did not feel like a main component of the sauce. The radish provided some crispness to the texture, but was not assertive or bright enough to balance out the pork jowl.

The flavors here were decent, but I would have preferred a meatier cut of pork belly than the bacon. The rice cakes were ok, but once again I was confused as to their purpose. There wasn't enough in the dish where it asserted itself as a main starch component, and as an accompaniment I thought something with a crispier, crunchier texture would have worked much better.

The tofu was decent and the pork shoulder was flavorful and worked better than the usual ground pork. There was just too much sichuan pepper for my taste. Which is ok, except that on a subsequent visit when I asked for the dish to be made with less of the sichuan pepper, they told me they could not accommodate that request. Nevertheless, the numbing spice level has varied every time I've ordered it, and this is a delicious dish when they're not as heavy-handed with it.

While the ingredients were not particularly special in my view, the fried rice had pretty good wok hei.

Newer items
This was excellent. It was well fried, sealing in the moisture of the (way more than expected) meat of the fish. It held up superbly for takeout. The hot pepper jelly was great, with the sweetness helping to balance out the spiciness, which was fragrant and not the numbing kind.

I assume this was their version of 蒜泥白肉, and it was a great rendition. The soy caramel really enhanced the umami in the dish, and the thinly shaved pork belly had an excellent textural mix of fat and meat. The menu says that this had sichuan pepper as well, but I didn't taste any, which was probably a good thing.

A tasty version of Thai pineapple fried rice. The bbq pork jowl worked better than I would have thought, and the pineapple pickle was nicely sweet, which went well with the curry. I was disappointed, though, that I could barely detect any dungeness crab. At $16 for fried rice, it was bad enough that I couldn't see any crab, let alone not taste any.

This was another tasty fried rice, and the good wok hei was not covered up by the schmaltz, which was one of my initial worries. However, given the richness of the liver and schmaltz, I would have preferred something brighter than radishes for contrast. I also would have preferred a lot more chicken heart pieces, which were excellent texturally with the fried rice.

Not all of the newer dishes were successes. This dish, which was actually more like a soup, failed on multiple levels. It was kind of like a tom yum soup, but the brine leaned more sweet than sour and the balance was off. The sichuan pepper once again did more to stifle the flavors than to bring them out. There was very little fish, and the bacon had an overpowering smokiness to it. It seemed like a bunch of interesting things that were thrown together, but didn't gel to become a coherent composed dish.

Service and Decor:
Honestly, I've never eaten at the restaurant. The decor is just so not my style. But I still experienced good service while getting takeout. On a recent visit, they only realized that one of the items that I'd ordered ran out by the time the rest of my order was ready. Not only did they allow me to replace it with anything else on the menu that I wanted, they even threw in an extra dish. There are a lot of nice restaurants that wouldn't do this, and I'd certainly never imagine it happening at any Chinese restaurant. I found that to be pretty impressive.

I do believe that Mission Chinese has been overrated and overhyped. (James Beard award? Really?) But that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of underrated potential still there. It's also kind of hard to root against them given their business practices, such as free beer for people waiting in line and a donation of 75 cents to the Food Bank of NYC from each entree sold.

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  1. when you strip away the fame, the hype, the lines, and the awards, you're left with an exciting menu, interesting dishes and a relatively small bill. they achieve what they set out to and the detractions are a result of that.

    2 Replies
    1. re: coasts

      agree with you completely.

      i will say consistency is an issue as they get bigger though. and take away orders are smaller and not nearly as good as in the restaurant.

      1. re: coasts

        Agree. We've had their food three times in about the last year and enjoyed it very much.

      2. I felt the same way when I ate there for the first time a month ago-I thought it was overrated-HOWEVER I find myself longing to go back as in retrospect it was a delicious and fun meal-very quircky atmosphere in a good way. I felt I was on a movie set in Vietnam during the 70's (altho I never been). Colorful and fun atmoshere-extremely laid back and definitely will go back to try more dishes. The casualness of the place and friendly staff only make for a more elevated dining experience overall. For those of you fearing hot spicy foods-it wasn't all that spicy for my taste buds.

        1 Reply
        1. re: UES Mayor

          +1 on all of that, plus I really liked their playlist! I know that doesn't equate to a Chow-worthy experience, but I do think about the Kung Pao pastrami still. We went there on our last NYC trip after the hype and the anti-hype and really enjoyed it. I just wished we were there with a group so we could try more dishes. After reading the OP's post, now I really want to go back.

        2. That's an interesting take. I agree with your conclusion but not how you got there.

          MC isn't trying to be a traditional Chinese restaurant - it's a kind of mash up. If you reject that concept outright then MC isn't going to work for you. Bowien is having fun doing riffs on traditional dishes and techniques - he's not trying to do anything complex. If you look for something more you're going to be disappointed.

          I accepted the place on it's own terms and I liked it.

          That said, I really do agree with you that it's been wildly overrated. NY Times "Best Opening of 2012?" Please. And Pete Wells' review was disgracefully over the top - a professional food critic really ought to know better.

          I think MC really impresses a lot of people who don't get out to the 20 or 30 really great Sichuan restaurants around the city. The flavors are new to them and they are disproportionately impressed.

          That doesn't mean that MC isn't good - it's just not standing at the top of some foodie pyramid.

          More here, including some choice words about Pete Wells.

          3 Replies
            1. re: Bob Martinez

              I completely agree that "MC really impresses a lot of people who don't get out to the 20 or 30 really great Sichuan restaurants around the city. The flavors are new to them and they are disproportionately impressed."

              But if that's the main reason someone would consider MC overrated and not go back, I wanted to point out that the non-Sichuan broadening of their menu (country fried hamachi collar, pineapple fried rice, etc.) is underrated on that same point.

              1. re: Bob Martinez

                thats a good way to put it scoopG, i agree with you

              2. MCF is a bit like the Tesla Model S.

                Great car, but the accolades and hype it receives is due in large part more from the novelty and uniqueness of its drivetrain than from a pure automotive performance perspective.

                Same with MCF. Yes, it's good. But is it great? No. But people consider it great because it is *so* different and unique given the current culinary landscape in/around NYC.

                3 Replies
                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I don't know what you mean by the culinary landscape. Do you mean what is available? Or what people think is available? As Bob said, there's some beautiful Sichuan food to be found in NYC, but these people don't know about it.

                  1. re: Peter Cuce

                    MCF is not Sichuan food, at least not in the traditional sense; it's sort of fusion Sichuan. Which is fine, and well, and that's part of the reason it's so unique, and hyped.

                    Just like Ko. It's good, no doubt. Maybe even very good. But great? Michelin star(s) worthy? Probably not in the absolute sense, but since it's doing Korean on a level not seen before, people view it as great.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      Sorry, I misread your post. Now I understand what you're saying.

                2. You are able to detect wok hei through the plastic take-out containers? How soon after you picked up your food was it on your table at home?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: scoopG

                    I can't quite describe it, but wok hei is more than the remaining radiant heat when the dish is served. It was a while before I got to it, but the flavors and textures seemed to me to reflect good wok hei.

                    1. re: fooder

                      well wok hei is actually the flavor you get from essentially smoking the food in a very hot wok. you can't get it at home b/c you don't have a hot enough fire (the fire they have in restaurants is way way hotter than what you have at home). like if you actually watch someone who knows how to work a wok, you'll see that it literally creates smoke which is imparted in the flavor of the food. although scoopG is right in that you kinda gotta eat it fairly quickly