As I chow on last night’s leftovers, my mouth tingles in memory of chef Danny Bowien’s Sichuan pepper-heavy dishes that he serves at the new Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side. Now, here is a man who not only knows how to play with traditional Asian spices, but has also figured out a way to make take-out Chinese hip. But don’t tell him that. “A lot of people have labeled us that way, but we are working away from that,” the long-haired chef says. “We are tying to make something at appeals to us, and is something we want to go to our day off.”
Bowien first made the scene with his original Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, which he opened in 2010 inside a dingy Chinese restaurant. Since then, the quaint joint has caused quite a commotion in the foodie scene as Bowien has won not only an Eater Award, but also a page in GQ and an appearance on The Martha Stewart Show. And how do New Yorkers take this young upstart’s move to the East Coast?
“Tonight is the slowest it’s been since we opened last week,” the hostess told us after explaining that on Tuesday night there was a 45-minute wait for three people. “There have been lines waiting for us when we open at five.” Luckily, they kindly offer a complementary Narragansett, which hungry patrons eagerly tapped from the keg sitting under the neon menu board.
“This is crazy, the overall reception, this just doesn’t happen and I feel very blessed,” says Bowien. “Overall, chefs and cooks have been so overly supportive, which is a big deal since I had never opened my own restaurant, let alone one in New York City.”
The menu remains nearly the same as the west coast one, with easily recognizable Chinese items like the dish that started Bowien on the path of Chinese food, tongue numbing mapo tofu. Funny enough, before his San Francisco restaurant, Bowien, who is a Korean from Oklahoma, had never cooked Chinese food before. “It’s not like rocket science, it’s like cooking.,” he says. “If you can make a slow cooked meat sauce, that’s petty much what mapo tofu is. You kind of just plug these ingredients in and make it.”
About his move east, Bowien told the New York Times in February, “We could have opened another one here in San Francisco, but I love New York, the way it pushes you. It inspires me so I wanted to come to New York.” Now, Bowien jets between coasts and, in two short years, has gone from a fine dining cook to restaurateur making waves. Enough waves, that opening week Daniel Boulud popped in and in and whipped up an omelet, which you can watch below. This sense of support and camaraderie blew Bowien away, especially since it’s exactly what he is going for.
“We are trying to create a sense of community here,” says the young chef. “Like two of your favorite bands playing together. It’s not just about one person it’s about a lot of people.”