Neighborhood: Lower East Side
172 Orchard St.
On the speakers: Sublime, "Summertime"
Wallet stress: Low (From $4 to $34.50 for a shared plate)
Danny Bowien has a certain creative mystique. And, it undoubtedly plays a role in food media’s preoccupation with him. When the chef strutted in on a Sunday evening with a neon beanie and oversized frames, I overhear the table beside me excitedly whispering to one another: “Is that him?”
Mission Chinese, his first NYC venture, was a whimsical take on Sichuan cuisine dominated by big flavors and even bigger crowds. The tiny subterranean spot burned brightly before ultimately being put out by a vermin issue last fall. And one gets the sense that Bowien's latest experiment, which opened just blocks away on the always-humming corner of Orchard and Stanton, may be drifting towards the same fate.
On a Saturday night—and even on a Sunday at 6 p.m.—Mission Cantina has a certain buzz about it. The dining room is soaked in a warm neon glow, adorned with piñatas (if you crack one open, does it rain tacos?) and party flags in bright hues. It’s small, but avoids being cramped and manages to claim "intimate" instead. There’s a faux-tiki bar with plastic shingles beside the open-kitchen, which is elevated like a stage, and a fascinating tortilla conveyor belt that cuts perfect circles of ground corn situated at its furthest end.
The food here is Mexican only insofar that there are tortillas involved; Bowien borrows more of the cuisine’s lively spirit than its actual ingredients. It’s a “play” on Mexican in the truest sense of the word. Bowien is dipping into Mexico’s bag of tricks, but is no way beholden to it. He only wants you to have fun. And, to his credit, you certainly do.
Smoked Queso Oaxaca: If you're imagining a skillet full of bubbling queso, you'll be disappointed. The fry bread is airy, its dough punctuated with dill, but the queso itself is underwhelming and, sadly, tastes entirely like mozzarella. Also—where the salsa at?
Chicken Wings: Crisp, moist chicken wings are deeply seasoned with mole, cumin and other spices, splashed with chili vinegar and sesame seeds, and expertly cooled with crema and crumbles of cotija cheese. Complex and completely fulfilling, you'd be making a mistake if you skipped these.
Fish Tacos: Tempura-battered skate wing is light and airy, fried just right, and accompanied by generous (perhaps too generous) dollops of avocado and crema. A bit one-note, but delicious regardless.
Calabazas Tacos: Tender, slightly greasy mushrooms with a wheel of chiccharon de queso. Simple, yet super tasty.
Alambres Tacos: A circle of cheese (crisp on top, melted beneath) perched over soft brisket and bacon. Mostly one-note—just really rich and savory.
Carnitas Tacos: Carnitas are my go-to at taquerias, and Bowien successfully tweaks the already-awesome formula here. Confit pork shoulder is soft and juicy, while the pork jowl is ultra-tender, and pork crackling adds even more textural intrigue.
Cumin Lamb Tacos: Dark and exciting flavors paired with slightly gamey meat and a herbed crema made this one of the most uniquely satisfying tacos on the menu.
Whole Rotisserie Chicken: This is the one item you can't leave without trying. A ridiculously tender bird sits atop a sticky, short grain rice soaked in a tangy brown rice vinaigrette; mint and dill appear here to excellent effect, and pecans add a touch of sweetness that play well off of the vinegary punch of the rice. But the real prize here are the stacks of homemade tortillas (thick and grainy because—real ground corn!) which accompany it. You can watch the line cooks generously slathering each one with butter in the window. It's only shortcoming: Save for the tortilla, salsas, and crema (all served on the side), there is nothing distinctly Mexican about this.
Como La Flor: Like a sangria without the sweetness, this soju-based cocktail has a pleasant wine-like acidity.
The Lil' Luche: Pineapple and yuzu make this soju cocktail sweet and tart, and a chile rim add some heat to balance the equation. Highly recommended.
The Cantina Michelada: Nothing inventive happening here, but it's as tart and spicy as a good michelada should be.
Like a kid given a new Lego set, Danny Bowien seems to take pleasure in building things just to knock them down. At Mission Cantina, lovable creations are regularly pulled from the menu (fried chicken for two, where you at?) seemingly never to return—tinkering is always evident. Still, one always has the sense the restaurant has all of the right elements in its arsenal. It hasn’t nailed the ideal permutation yet, but with every set of tacos coming in under $12, it’s very easy to invest in its evolution.