Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food boasts a distinct sense of personality. Guests at any of the institution’s three locations (one in San Francisco, two in New York) will quickly recognize Bowien’s creative and culinary vision as eccentric and a whole lot of fun. Neon lights play off vivid plates, ranging from crunchy salads to mouth-numbing fried meats. On East Broadway in Manhattan, the Twin Peaks theme song plays in the bathrooms; in Bushwick, Matrix-like cascades of Chinese characters illuminate the mirrors. Diners sip on brilliant blue cocktails as they share in addictive fare and electrifying energy. And yet, Mission Chinese Food’s psyche continues to evolve and morph; those who come back for more are met with new dishes and changes in decor.
Danny Bowien was born in Korea, grew up in Oklahoma, spent time working in sushi joints, and acquired serious skills in San Francisco while cooking for chef Paolo Laboa at the now-closed restaurant Farina. Laboa, 56, migrated to San Francisco from Genoa when he was 43. The chef, who cooks only Ligurian cuisine, is extraordinarily disciplined and methodical. “When I met [Laboa], I was a good line cook, but I wasn’t a good chef,” Bowien says. “I didn’t really know how to match flavors.” That changed with Laboa’s guidance. One of Laboa’s current cooks, Ruth Baker, says that he is without a doubt the best chef in Portland, Maine (where he is currently the executive chef of Solo Italiano) and the only boss she’s ever worked for who logs more kitchen hours than she does (about 95 a week). In 2008, Laboa took Bowien on his first trip out of the country to compete in the Pesto World Championship. Bowien figured he was just along for the ride, but in the end, the duo won, holding the title for the next two years.
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It’s the afternoon before the first night of Off Menu Week, for which the lauded pesto Genovese is being offered. Bowien wanted to go “way out of left field” for the occasion, so he invited his mentor Laboa to make a cameo. The lauded pesto is bright green and super creamy, just salty enough, and not overwhelmed by garlic. In the kitchen of Mission Chinese Food’s Manhattan location, Laboa scoops a few spoonfuls into a pan, then drizzles olive oil and sprinkles Pecorino on top. He warms the pesto over the stove, throws in a generous handful of gnocchi, tosses it a few times, then plates it. “This is the oldest recipe,” Laboa says. “His grandma’s recipe,” Bowien adds. “Grandma’s grandma’s grandma,” Laboa clarifies, as he gestures in a circular motion, as if to say “and so on.”
One New York Mission Chinese mainstay is a Naples-style sourdough pizza that’s made of starter sourced from San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. Bowien first imagined the pizza when when he inherited a pizza oven from the East Broadway space Mission Chinese took over. The pizza was a nod to both Laboa and Bowien’s days as an Italian cook. When the New York location opened, the pizza was served with a side of mapo tofu for dipping. That dish is back for Off Menu Week, along with a Caesar salad, pasta Pomodoro with buffalo mozzarella, and fettuccine alfredo.
Bowien’s motivation for his Off Menu Week program is his drive to highlight the things he likes to eat. “I grew up in Oklahoma, so I grew up eating Olive Garden,” Bowien says. “My relationship with Paolo was really great because I would always ask him questions like, ‘Hey, what do you think of fettuccine Alfredo?’ He’d be like, “Well, here’s how you actually make this dish.” The version Bowien serves is lighter than the Olive Garden sort, with a hit of acid from white wine, a dusting of Pecorino and parsley, and a mix of fried and sauteed oyster mushrooms—harvested from Mission Chinese Food’s in-house mushroom farm and tossed in an umami-rich porcini powder. “The only twist [for Off Menu Week] is that we’ll be using mostly alkaline noodles from Sun Noodles,” Bowien explains. While Laboa handmakes his pasta, Bowien wanted to make sure that they could keep the price points in check, ensuring accessibility.
But Alfredo isn’t the only fun Bowien’s having this week. Bowien orders an Uber, and he and Laboa head to H Mart on 2nd Avenue to stock up on ingredients for the Off Menu items he’ll be serving in Bushwick later tonight. Laboa looks around the Korean grocery store, wide-eyed, as Bowien grabs as many bowls of Shin Instant Ramyun that he can, clutching ten between his hands and his chin. “Oh my god, look at Danny!” Laboa snaps out of his wonder and offers help. Bowien laughs. Soon enough, they’re back in transit to 599 Johnson Ave, the complex that houses both Mission Chinese Food’s Brooklyn location and the music venue and nightclub, Elsewhere. It’ll be Laboa’s first time on-site. Bowien opens a bag of mini matcha kit-kats for the ride, takes one, and passes it back. “It tastes so good,” Laboa says. “I don’t know why, but I can’t only have one.” Upon arrival, Bowien unpacks his H Mart haul and gets to work, alongside his head chef Kate Telfeyan.
Mission Chinese Food has been up and running in Bushwick for just under a year. When they opened, the menu was more or less a mirror image of Manhattan, but Bowien acknowledges that the Bushwick outpost is a different restaurant. Given its shared clientele with Elsewhere, people are trying to come in and have quick meals before a show. Off Menu Week came at a perfect time: he and Telfeyan had been thinking about how to revise the menu. “It’s fun to start to imagine what next year is going to look like, and get some personality on the menu aside from my own,” he says. Both he and Telfeyan are adopted Korean-Americans, a shared identity that led them to tinker with jamppong (spicy seafood stew) and jajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodles)—two essential dishes from the compact, hybrid cuisine known as Korean-Chinese. But Bowien and Telfeyan are doing these dishes their own way.
“This whole experience has been a good excuse to. . . work on what the menu is going to evolve into [in Bushwick],” Bowien says. He tears the lid off a Shin Ramyun and pours out its contents. Then he cooks up a serving of chewy kezuri noodles. When they’re done, he tosses them into the empty Shin Ramyun paper bowl along with his broth, adds a helping of mapo tofu, and tops it with green Sichuan peppercorn: the dish is called Mapo Ramen. Bowien then combines a mix of freshly cooked plain and squid ink ramen noodles, covers them with a ladle of a black bean-and-pork jowl sauce bubbling in a giant wok behind the pass, and arranges sliced cucumbers, fluorescent yellow pickled radishes, thin slices of red onion, and shreds of nori on top. Voila: black bean noodle zhajiangmian.
The main event is a fried lamb ribs dish that’s bound to be tasty, given Bowien’s success with the cut. Country-fried lamb is one of Bowien’s most popular dishes; he serves it with bread and butter pickles, kefir cream, dates, and sourdough pita in Manhattan and alongside charred onion, pickled fruits, halal sauce, and sourdough naan in Brooklyn. Off Menu Week marks the debut of Mission Chinese Food’s take on Korean fried chicken: it’s paired with sweet potato fries, rolled around in a sticky-sweet glaze, and showered with Korean chile powder and fried garlic. “This one… you’ll die,” Bowien says to Laboa after he finishes-off the dish, watching excitedly as his mentor grabs a rib and dives in. Laboa’s eyes roll to the back of his head. Bowien laughs. “It’s so good, right?”
“Oh my god,” Laboa responds, between chews. The dish is fatty, gloopy, spicy, and chock-full of umami.
“We’re going to give gloves to the guests when they eat this,” Bowien says. He turns to Telfeyan. “Yeah, this is ridiculous. With the sweet potato fries? It’s the best.”
“Lamb fat is good for you,” Laboa adds.
While the pasta dishes being served this week in Manhattan are more of a one-time thing, it’s likely that some of what’s being offered in Bushwick will stick around.
At the standard Korean-Chinese food restaurant, a slew of signature dishes are offered, guests order them all, and enjoy everything together. There’s the black bean noodles, the spicy soup, some sort of sweet and sour meat dish, an eggy fried rice, usually dumplings, plus Korean pickles and sometimes kimchi. It’s a format that Bowien is fond of and fascinated with. “It’s very indulgent… like just what you want to be eating on a couch, you know?” Plenty of chefs have experimented with these dishes, but most are probably not riffing on the entire style, Bowien suggests. “We’re thinking about offering a set menu [at Mission Chinese Food Bushwick] that’s all of the dishes, but in smaller portions.” That’s just one idea from a chef who is full of them. Bowien draws inspiration from all corners of his life, creating personal takes on beloved dishes from Asia and beyond, and above all, honing in on what he enjoys most. It’s no wonder he and Off Menu Week hit it off.