New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells first reviewed Mission Chinese Food on New York’s Lower East Side back in 2012, and gave the restaurant two stars at the time. This week, he once again reviewed them, as they have since reopened in a new space with a larger kitchen and more diverse menu, and he once again awarded them two stars.
Wells’ reasoning behind keeping Mission’s star rating is that they are now aiming to give guests a more refined experience, so mistakes by the kitchen are more noticeable and deserve a bit less forgiveness. When they were in their old location on Orchard Street, “the throttlingly loud music, the elbows-in-your-ribs seating, the chile-induced sweats and the improbably low prices (nothing cost more than $15 when I gave the restaurant two stars in 2012) conspired to cover the kitchen’s lapses. You registered the bumps, but as on the Cyclone, they were part of the ride. They matter more now that the menu is rich with check-goosing banquet dishes and the restaurant aims for a degree of finesse.”
He details these bumps, among them being the dry breast meat on a whole duck confit, the $150 price tag for a smoked prime rib garnished with a king crab leg, and the fact that the staff needs to be trained on their wine list and how to correctly open and pour a bottle. This isn’t enough to justify the removal of a star, however, because, for Wells, “these are normal lapses for what has become, against the odds and to almost everybody’s benefit, a nearly normal restaurant. The hallucinations may have stopped, but Mission Chinese Food is still a trip.”
The critic enjoys the new, more diverse menu, which he credits to the “well-appointed kitchen in the basement, not Orchard Street’s narrow galley behind plexiglass.” Where the old menu mainly relied on “Mr. [Danny] Bowien’s freethinking approach as by the burn and tingle of chiles and Sichuan peppercorns,” now “Fewer than a third of the items are marked by red flames… The rest is not just less fire-spewing but more varied than before, drawing from regions beyond Sichuan and countries beyond China. Some of it is even nuanced.”
So, which nuanced dishes does he recommend you try? “Our Favorite Anchovies, red cabbage salad, green papaya and banana blossom salad, Chongqing chicken wings, bread and butter, clams in black bean sauce, thrice-cooked bacon, cumin lamb, mapo tofu, big tray fish, wood oven fish, lobster and coconut fried rice, oat noodles, green tea noodles, Napa cabbage, Josefina’s house special chicken.” Don’t get him wrong: Wells doesn’t think anyone “is going to mistake Mission Chinese Food for a rarefied tasting,” but judging by the star rating and overall positive review, he does think diners will most likely really enjoy their meal.