Mission Chinese Food

Last year, I successfully bid on a one-night stay at any Club Quarters hotel location in the world. A few months ago, we realized that the certificate was about to expire. While a quick jaunt to London would have been delightful, we opted for the slightly easier route to New York. My husband’s best friend, Jeff, and his girlfriend, Erika, live in the City and this was the perfect opportunity to visit with them and get some great New York eats.

After some discussion, we decided to try New York’s outpost of the popular Mission Chinese Food for lunch. It was a risky move as the restaurant does not take reservations. We figured we’d give it a try and had a back up plan just in case the wait seemed outrageous. Danny Bowien recently opened the NYC location of this “Americanized Oriental food” in a “dive bar setting.” In fact, it made Zagat’s list of the 10 Hottest Restaurants in the World in January.

We drove into the city on a sunny Saturday and quickly found parking just a block away from the restaurant. We descended the stairs into a cramped waiting area where patrons could either order take out or put their name in for a table. As it turned out, the wait was only 15-20 minutes long, said the hipster gentleman at the counter. We grabbed some menus and plotted out our meal. After no more than 10 minutes, we were seated. The tables are jammed in pretty tightly–you don’t even have to strain to eavesdrop on your neighbors (or to check out their food)–score!

Of course I wanted every single noodle dish on the menu. I restrained myself and we stuck to two noodle dishes, one small and one large dish.

First came the BBQ pigtails.

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This is the perfect example of “Americanized Oriental” food, although it certainly leaned more to the American side of the spectrum. This was a generously sized “small dish” and the pork tails were meaty, fatty and messy. Pretty much everything you’re looking for in BBQ. It came with a killer potato salad and plain roll to sop up the juices. This would be a great dish to share because I had my fill after just one lil’ piggy tail.

Next up was the kung pao pastrami. This was THE dish we had heard about and it was one of those ones that sounds too interesting not to order, ya know? My husband was a bit concerned about the two alarm heat factor–the dish contains “explosive chili.” I reminded him that he has handled tastings at Han Dynasty so two alarms should be no biggie.

I was right.

IMG_3880Not only was this dish surprisingly lacking the promised “explosive chili,” I literally could not pick up one iota of heat. The pastrami was tasty, albeit sparing, and I always like a good peanut, but this dish was generally disappointing.

We couldn’t decide between the spicy peanut noodles and the egg egg noodles so of course we got both.

The peanut noodles came with braised lamb neck, cucumbers, chili oil and mint. The description was pretty close to our beloved dan dan noodles from Han Dynasty.

IMG_3881The noodles were good. Nice sauce, the cucumber and mint gave it a refreshing crunch. I could have gone without the dry braised lamb neck on the side though. In my opinion, Han Dynasty’s version edged this one out though. I had higher hopes for the egg egg noodles–egg noodles with a soft-cooked hen egg.

IMG_3882This one had a nice flavor, although if we had to pick, we would have gone with the peanut noodles instead. While two noodles dishes isn’t necessarily overkill, these flavor profiles were a little too closely aligned. Additionally, I prefer my noodles a little less al dente in a dish like this.

Looking back, it seems like I enjoyed my lunch less than I actually did. I would go back and try some other things–the salt cod fried rice seemed to be the darling of neighboring diners. It was also just a fun atmosphere. If you twisted my arm and forced me to choose at this point, I’d rather devour a bowl of dan dan noodles and spicy crispy cucumbers any day of the week.

After lunch, we strolled around the neighboring Little Italy and grabbed a few snacks for later.

IMG_3883Because, you know, who doesn’t need a little rice ball in her life?

On our way back to the car, we stopped at an artisanal popcorn shop. We got popcorn for my parents and for the dog, of course. This is New York, after all.  We then grabbed a late afternoon beer flight at the awesome Top Hops Beer Shop which has an extensive rotating tap list, with the opportunity to create your own flight of any four beers, and a take out bottle selection in the back. Perfect way to end the afternoon. Next up, dinner!

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#7- Have Dim Sum with a Chinese person

I am excited to report that I can check off the first item from my 30 by 30 list. Officially, I accomplished the task prior to writing the entry, but it’s been on the list for a while.

When my husband and I went to San Francisco last August, one of the things that was high on our to-do list was checking out authentic dim sum in San Francisco’s humongous Chinatown. We had a few places in mind, thanks to Lonely Planet, but we figured we’d just wander around and look for a crowd. We woke up, put on our sneakers and left our Union Square hotel for the walk to Chinatown. After meandering around the city a bit, we made our way to Chinatown. I’ve spent time in Chinatowns in Philadelphia and Washington DC, but neither of them hold a candle to San Francisco. We were a bit overwhelmed, to say the least. We ended up walking into the first one that looked busy and had a tasty but slightly intimidating experience. I’ll save the long version of the story, but we may or may not have ordered a pig’s blood dish that I thought was eggplant…

Ever since that experience, I’ve wanted to have a dim sum experience with someone who is familiar with the language, culture and food. My friend, Teresa, fits that bill on all accounts, so we set a date with our respective significant others.  We planned on hitting Chinatown at 10am when the restaurants were just opening, but ended up getting there a little closer to 10:15 due to traffic and parking. Apparently parking is a hot commodity in Chinatown on a Sunday morning. We walked into Ocean Harbor a few minutes after 10am and the place was already packed.  Teresa immediately took control and got a number from the ever popular maitre d’/host/gatekeeper. The number was scrawled onto a piece of paper while the gatekeeper held a clipboard with an elaborate seating system that only he could decipher. We waited close to 45 minutes before we were seated at a four-top with a great view of the food offerings coming from the kitchen.

Prior to selecting any dishes, Teresa picked up the tea menu and ordered a chrysanthemum tea. I don’t remember where I read it, but I read somewhere that if you order tea at a Chinese restaurant, they take you more seriously. Who knows. The tea was pretty neat looking. Those crystals next to it are sugar that you put right into the teapot brimming with Chrysanthemum buds.

Although I’m not much of a tea connoisseur, I could taste (and smell!) the floral aura of the chrysanthemum, and the sweetness increased as we got closer to the bottom of the teapot.

We immediately grabbed chinese greens and fried bean curd along with a special of pork (?) wrapped in bean curd and fried. I will apologize in advance that some of my memory and/or spelling and/or interpretation of what the heck I was eating may be incorrect or lacking.

Greens always make me happy at Dim Sum restuarants. Why? Because it’s something that I actually can recognize and know exactly what I’m eating. The only problem is those little buggers are awful tricky on the chopsticks. The greens were nice and al dente with a sweet and salty sauce that I could have drank in a cup. I passed on the fried bean curd but we all agreed that the other, special, dish was phenomenal.

Next, we grabbed my all-time favorite, turnip cakes!!!

How could the Chinese possibly make something simple taste SO good? I have no clue, but I could eat turnip cakes all day long. Seriously.

Things start to get a little fuzzy from there. We just started pointing and ordering and Teresa spoke a mix of Chinese and English with the ladies wheeling the carts around. Or maybe she was just speaking English. It was really loud and hard to hear, which is why I left most of the ordering to her.

That’s my friend Brian when I told him to act like I was taking a picture of him so I could sneak a picture of the restaurant. Of course I accidentally took a picture of him while doing so. Very Rodin.

The next few dishes came so quickly that I got a little lax with the pictures. I didn’t want to miss anything!

Brian had been dying for the sticky rice in a banana leaf, which, after some googling, I learned is called “zongzi.” It was stuffed with an array of some identifiable and some unidentifiable meat. I enjoyed the sticky rice, but two big packets of zongzi became slightly overwhelming. Next to the zongzi are pork shumai that we all devoured. Although I tend not to be a pork eater, that was probably my favorite dish of the afternoon (besides the aforementioned turnip cakes.) We also went with the traditional pork bun, which benefitted greatly from a touch of chili oil and soy sauce. Next to the pork buns are Teresa’s favorite, ribs. I didn’t have any ribs, but the rest of the table sang their praises.

Look at how many plates we have stacked up! On the right was a scallion dumpling which popped with fresh, green flavor. On the upper left was a fried shrimp ball which was fine, but did not have much flavor on its own. I’m trying to figure out what the bottom left item is and I’m going to go with another picture of the turnip cake? Who knows.

One of our last orders was shrimp shumai which was a simple but clean finish to the meal.

We may have had dishes that I missed. I can think of one flaky, sesame pastry stuffed with pork and/or red bean paste that didn’t quite wow us. There may have been another dish or two that I was unable to capture. Overall, it was a phenomenal meal made even better by the fact that it was only $40 for the four of us! What an amazing bargain!

After the meal, we stopped at a bakery on the way back to the car. I got a glazed bun stuffed with custard and two corn buns that were slightly like danishes but much less sweet. I would describe all of the bread items as being brioche style. For 70 cents each, it was fun to try something different. Teresa was the only one among us who actually likes bubble tea and she ordered a traditional bubble tea in Chinese (with me badgering her the whole time “What did you say? What did she say???”)

Overall, the experience at Ocean Harbor was much less intimidating than that in San Francisco. Did it help that my friend was there? Yes. However, I feel as if I am beginning to have a greater understanding of dim sum and look forward to going back soon (sorry, folks, no chicken feet any time soon.)