Three bites in and my lips are numb, to say nothing about the state of my tongue. Perhaps it’s the deliriously masochistic euphoria of the tingling or maybe it’s just that these are the best chicken wings I’ve ever eaten — much less in a red, low-lit, semi-secret back room — but I would fly back to New York to eat here again.
Welcome, to Mission Chinese Food in New York City.
The doors open at 5:30 for dinner. At 5:35, there are already 20 people standing outside with me to try and claim a table at the mainly walk-ins only, but sometimes we take reservations, restaurant. The doors open and around me I hear sighs of relief. People are hungry.
The front of the restaurant doubles as a no frills basement take-out joint , complete with back-lit pictures of some of the more popular dishes.
But if you’re looking to sit, the line starts back there. The host leads individual parties through a dark and somewhat dirty hallway, past the thin kitchen, where all the cooks are ladies (you go, girls!). I feel like I’m being led into an underworld rendezvous, but up a few stairs, and I find myself in a small, but cozy, dining room.
We’re seated in the furthest corner of the restaurant, across from a sign that reads “Treat Yo Self…to a shot of Fernet Branca ($8).” A Chinese dragon winds through the red lanterns on the ceiling of the dining room and above a bar that I’m sure had a previous existence in my friend’s backyard tiki bar.
I order a cocktail and get a wonky concoction made with rum, cantaloupe juice, soymilk and black pepper — delicious. Then we get the food rolling. We order the pork spareribs, complete with a maraschino cherry, chicken wings made with explosive chili, Japanese eggplant with fried shallots and Thai basil, mussels in a spicy Tom Yum broth with shallots and chorizo and the cucumbers with sesame oil. * The food is wicked aromatic, the combustible chili ominously tickling my nose while still on the plate. The mussels in Tom Yum broth lend a citrusy-sour note to the orchestra of odors on the table. The spareribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and have a touch of sweetness, thanks to the pineapple. Maraschino cherries prove to taste the same in New York as they do in Chicago.
The dining room, because of its cozy nature, lends itself to table-to-table conversation, and we soon find ourselves excitedly chatting it up with our neighbors about what we had all ordered.
I have eaten a lot of Chinese food, thanks to my grandparents raising me as a child. Without a doubt, this was the best new age, classic Chinese food I had eaten in a long time. The extreme, lingering and welcomed spice, rich flavors and hip atmosphere were calling me back, as soon as I’d walked out the door.
If only they delivered long distance.
*There were other we did not order that I was dying to try, namely, the thrice-cooked bacon and the Kung-Pao pastrami. Alas, we had another dinner reservation 2.5 hours after this one.
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