They say variety is the spice of life. At Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food outpost on the Lower East Side the spice is life, and so is giving back. Like the original Mission Chinese in San Francisco, 75 cents from every meal here is also being donated to charity.
The restaurant itself is very modest. Walk through the front door to what is a Chinese takeout with dishes listed on a plastic sign. A narrow cement walkway takes you past an open air kitchen where you can watch Bowien and his crew hard at work turning traditional Chinese food upside down as they turn up the heat.
Beyond the kitchen and through a curtain you will find the main dining area; a shack of sorts with a shed roof and walls covered in lattice. In the corner is a small wooden bar that resembles a tiki hut. It seats up to twelve people and is the only spot in the restaurant that can be reserved. A large sharing table fills the center of the room. During our visit it was filled with strangers, but no one seemed to mind, especially once the food began arriving. Circling above it all is a dragon lit up in a fiery red; a prelude of what is to come.
The menu is split among smaller dishes and larger plates. Flames (one or two) signify the heat level. Among the smaller plates, on the tame side, there is a savory egg custard with sea urchin, apple and trout roe ($13), while lamb cheek dumplings in red oil with rock sugar, peanuts and numbing peppercorns ($8) are featured on the "hot" side. We settled on four of the larger dishes try: two hot, two not.
Westlake Rice Porridge ($11) is a simple yet complex dish with bits of sweet shrimp, ribeye, egg and cilantro. It is also a dish we found ourselves returning to as we dealt with the heat from the Thrice Cooked Bacon ($11.50). It is served with sliced Shanghainese rice cakes and bitter melon in a sea of chili oil. While it only received only one flame, it actually deserves two. It is flaming goodness. Just be prepared. We also enjoyed the Chongqing Chicken Wings ($10). The wings, dusted with chili powder, arrive under a bed of fragrant dried chilies and served with crispy bits of beef tripe. I'm not a fan of tripe but this tasted almost like pork crackling. It is a wonderful treat. But if I had to pick a favorite, I would have to say it was the beef cheek smothered in broccoli, garlic and smoked oyster sauce ($13). It is so good on so many levels, from the crunchy greens to the most tender piece of meat you may ever try in your life.
During our next visit we'll make sure to try the salt cod fried rice ($11) which looked excellent, and maybe the stir fried pork jowl with radishes ($11). Dessert is not offered at Mission Chinese Food, but if you need to cool down, il Laboratorio del Gelato is just a few blocks away.