Do you know about Mission Chinese Food yet? Their story would sound so cliché if it wasn’t all absolutely true, and kind of amazing. Chef Danny Bowien first opened Mission Chinese as a secret, no-signage restaurant in the back of another (yes, another) Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. A secret Chinese restaurant within a Chinese restaurant. Where else in the world, other than San Francisco, could one get away with such hipster preposterousness? Why, the Lower East Side, of course! So Chef Danny opened his Manhattan outpost last month on Orchard Street, although this time there were no secrets. People have been going apeshit for his food ever since.
If I were to be honest, I’d tell you that at first it was a hard sell for me. I was annoyed by the masses of hungry people pushing their way through the tiny front door and demanding a table. Wait time is usually upward of 2 to 3 hours (and yes, people will wait it out). When we didn’t want to wait, we’d grab takeout, but the limited takeout menu does not cater to vegetarians so well.
But I’m starting to come around. If you plan ahead (and you should), you can grab a reservation, enjoy free beer from a keg while you wait (and with a rez, the waiting is nil), then be swept away to the dark back dining room, where a large, dangling paper dragon winds along the ceiling above your head. The ambiance is awesome and relaxed, the people working are funny and generous with menu advice and free sparkling water made fresh in their SodaStream (finally! A restaurant making their own sparkling water!), and then comes the food. Beautiful. Delicious. Inexpensive. Vegan friendly. Sichuan pickled vegetables. Vinegary peanuts with smoked garlic. Flan-like slices of tofu poached in soy milk and garnished with sesame leaves. Tender eggplant sliced thin in a tomato sauce that’s at once salty and tangy and sweet. I’ll stop now.
I came around quick to this place (be willing to try anything twice is the mantra I try to live by these days). My favorite dish is a small bowl of smashed cucumbers, skin on, in a sesame paste and sprinkled with salted chilis. Here’s Chef Bowien’s recipe for another cucumber dish that I’m going to try this week. Cucumbers are a cooling, anti-inflammatory veg, perfect to chill the palette when you’re sampling fiery Sichuan dishes. Eat these with something with noodles and Sriracha.
Hot & Sour Cucumbers with Seaweed & Burnt Chili
recipe by Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien for Bon Appétit, made meatless by me
For the burnt chili soy:
2 tbsp. coarsely crumbled dried wakame
9 red Fresno chiles or red jalapeños
1 c. chopped scallions, dark-green parts only (approx. 12 scallions)
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. tamari soy sauce
For the cucumbers:
3 tsp. toasted sesame oil, divided
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns
6 kirby cucumbers
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1/4 c. Sherry vinegar
12 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
6 scallions, chopped
5 red jalapeños, thinly sliced
2 Thai chiles, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. hoisin sauce
BURNT CHILI SOY:
Place wakame in a small bowl. Cover with 1 c. boiling water; let sit until reconstituted, 5–6 min. Drain wakame, reserving 1/2 c. soaking liquid. Tear wakame into bite-size pieces, if needed. Cover and chill.
Char chiles over a gas flame or in a broiler, turning occasionally, until blackened all over. Do not peel. Remove seeds, chop chiles (makes about 1 c.). Process chiles, scallion tops, sugar, tamari, and 1/2 c. reserved wakame soaking liquid in a food processor until a coarse purée forms. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and keep in refrigerator).
Heat 1 tsp. oil in a small skillet. Add peppercorns and stir until fragrant, about 2 min. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and let cool.
Cut cucumbers in half lengthwise. Cut each half into 4 wedges. Cut wedges in half crosswise. Toss cucumbers and salt in a large bowl to coat, let stand for 20 min. Drain cucumbers.
Combine cucumbers, reserved wakame, vinegar, remaining 6 ingredients, and remaining 2 tsp. sesame oil in a large bowl. Let stand to marinate, tossing occasionally, for 15 min. before serving. Spoon burnt chili soy over to taste.