Like Michael Jordan in his prime, It chef Danny Bowien—who rocketed to culinary superstardom for his revelatory Szechuan at Mission Chinese Food—up and switched disciplines. While Bowien’s got more talent for Mexican than MJ had for baseball, at Mission Cantina, he’s far from the top of his game.
He still plays to packed crowds of bohos and bankers, tinting them pink with neon lights, just like he did at that fun-loving weird disco of a restaurant, Mission Chinese. (The NYC location shuttered last November due to mice scuttling in from an adjacent construction project.)
The haute-casual Latin dishes seldom mesmerize in the way we know Bowien can, and it’s not on account of any shortage of ambition: Most restaurants outsource their masa or tortillas, but this joint puts forth the herculean effort to stone grind and nixtamalize (braise in pickling lime) dried heirloom corn kernels into masa. It pays huge dividends in the form of intensely corny, delicately puffed tortillas. But the tacos themselves are hit or miss—that format is perhaps too confining to reflect Bowien's outsize creative endeavors. One boasts tender, deeply charred nuggets of pork cheek ($6.50), while another suffers from mealy, too-firm chunks of pumpkin ($6). Livery beef tongue ($6.50) is roused by pickled tomatoes, but a sleepy combo of braised octopus and grilled turkey wing ($6.50) is all texture, no flavor.
The genre-bending stunners we’ve come to expect from Bowien exist beyond the taco template. Crisp chicken wings ($12.50) smolder in a dry rub of mole spices, a balanced onslaught of smoky, spicy, bitter and sweet. Masa cooked à la grits tastes like corn to the infinity power, crowned by a thatch of braised collards tingling with hot sauce and beer ($8.50).
A whole rotisseried-then-grilled chicken ($34) has all the makings of a trademark dish, yet its juicy flesh is surprisingly bland, and its stuffing of rice, chorizo and raisins skews soft and sweet. The real signature is the new takeout burrito ($11), griddled crisp in chicken grease, and loaded with earthy red beans and luscious meats like grilled, fatty brisket.
These golden, riceless torpedoes bust through the barrier between tasty and transcendent in a way that little else at Mission Cantina does. Where Bowien’s insurgent cooking at Mission Chinese Food launched a Szechuan reformation, his creative Mexican plates are merely a slight evolution. He brought his first restaurant to New York as a spin-off after years of experimentation in San Francisco, and his latest venture has had a much shorter incubation period. Sometimes a revolution takes time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Chicken wings, creamed masa, pork cheek tacos, beef tongue tacos, lamb breast taco, grilled brisket burrito
Behind the bar: In absence of a full liquor license (and a stiff margarita), you’re better off with a throat-tingling michelada than any number of sweet cocktails scantly spiked with soju.
Vibe: The compact room gets a psychedelic tinge from blue and pink neon and a giant triangular mirror reminiscent of The Dark Side of the Moon.
Cocktail chatter: Bowien draws inspiration from all over, modeling tacos after Mexico City versions, burritos after those of SF’s late-night taquerias and the bar’s bamboo siding after NYC sushi joints.
Soundcheck: With the stereo bumping and beer bottles clanking, it feels like a full-on party could break out at any moment.
By Daniel S. Meyer