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Inside the ‘Uniquely American’ Mission Chinese Food Cookbook

Read Anthony Bourdain's foreword, and take a deep dive into the world of Kung Pao Pastrami.

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Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Danny Bowien is the chef at the helm of a bi-coastal sensation. Mission Chinese Food has come to be synonymous with unexpected whimsy, with fiery hot chicken wings, and with reinvention. Ryan Sutton called the New York City location "an absolutely thrilling place to eat" and the restaurant has earned a place in the Eater NY 38. And here now is a look inside Bowien's first cookbook, co-authored by Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying and published by Anthony Bourdain's Ecco imprint. The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook hits shelves on November 10. Read on:

Foreword by Anthony Bourdain

Nothing else matters.
Only deliciousness.

There was a time when "authenticity" was a serious factor in assessing the meal you were about to have—or the one you had just had. Was this pasta sauced the way the nonnas would do it, back in Modena or Naples? Is this a "real" taco—or an American's idea of a taco?

And "cultural appropriation": this, too, was a factor.

Were those Chinese or Koreans preparing that sushi? Weren't they historical antagonists? Should I feel queasy at the prospect of a white guy serving Thai food?

All such questions became instantly quaint with the emergence of Mission Chinese.

All such questions became instantly quaint with the emergence of Mission Chinese.

The mutant offspring of a taco cart, a charitable pop-up, a loose gathering of chefs, it ended up metastasizing from a two-nights-a-week experiment inside Lung Shan, an existing Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District, to the hottest, hardest-to-get-into, most influential restaurant in New York.

On any given night, Mission Chinese in its original iteration, a crummy, half-assed tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, would be clogged with pleasure-seekers—many of them chefs—greedily scarfing up everything on the menu. It was a hallowed ground, with crowds spilling out into the street, forming a line of the food-obsessed who would cheerfully wait for hours. Food writers would be stacked in holding, like planes circling over O'Hare in bad weather. At every table, drunk, happy people Instagrammed their food between bites. Meanwhile, Danny Bowien, improbable King of New York, improbable host, toastmaster general, and Korean American kid from Oklahoma City, popped in and out of the kitchen, dropping teapots of mai tais (as I remember dimly, anyway) and one plate after another of sizzling, searingly delicious food in front of his deliriously happy guests.

"Oh, NO! It's too hot!" said chef Eric Ripert, standing suddenly bolt upright, a look of genuine alarm on his face.

He'd just had his first bite of Mission Chinese's notorious Chongqing Chicken Wings—a dish with a somewhat higher "burn quotient" than my Michelin-starred friend was used to.

He ran urgently to the bathroom, returning later with the news that the music from Twin Peaks was playing in there.

Eric went on to thoroughly enjoy his first Mission Chinese experience, the Salt-Cod Fried Rice being a particular highlight for him. He wouldn't return to the chicken wings that night, but the next morning my phone rang early.

It was Eric. In his French accent, still thick with sleep, he said, "We have to go back for that chicken. I've been thinking about it all night. I don't know why. I don't understand. But I think I need more."

Without knowing it, Ripert had, I believe, put his finger on one of the more important, revolutionary aspects of what Mission Chinese is doing.

Great restaurants teach us something—not just about food or hospitality, but about ourselves and our desires—that we didn't know before.

When Mario Batali's Babbo opened in 1998, it taught us that, yes, we want, maybe even need, beef cheeks and calves' brains and lambs' tongues in our food.

Ten years later, Dave Chang's Momofuku Ko taught us that, given the opportunity, we'd rather enjoy fine dining at a counter, dispensing with the bullshit.

And now Mission Chinese has taught us that we are, in fact, capable of experiencing much more pain while eating than we might previously have thought possible. That we can enjoy food just as spicy—maybe even spicier—than our fellow food enthusiasts in Chengdu and that, like them, we can sit there, sweating and pink-faced, mopping our necks, heads aflame, growing only more gloriously and deliriously happy. That we not only "get" what is going on in a scorching ma po tofu, but we now crave it. Have to have it.

It's like you live your whole life pretty damn sure that you don't like pain of any kind. It could be a trio of oiled-up supermodels waving that bullwhip or nipple clamp, but you ain't having any of it. Then something happens. Life changes. You learn some very dark shit about yourself. And Mission Chinese shows it to you.

We are still, after all these years, struggling to define in any meaningful way what it is to be American.

But it's not just about the heat, or the fact that the food is so maddeningly, addictively flavorful. What makes Mission Chinese a game-changing enterprise (I know, it's a hideously overused term, but stay with me) is not just the democratic everybody-waits-on-line, firstcome- first-served ethic, or the fact that the menu reflects, to an unusual degree, what chefs in particular want to eat. It's not even the whole DIY, over-the-top, supercharged, pleasure-dome-in-a-shithole thing.

It's the fact that Danny Bowien, and a few others like him—mostly first-generation immigrants from Asia—are changing, redefining, and defining forever what "American cuisine" really is.

America, after all, is a young country. We are still, after all these years, struggling to define in any meaningful way what it is to be American. We are, almost all of us, from somewhere else. Or our parents were. Or our grandparents. We don't have a national cuisine like the French. Or an imperial one like the Chinese. Our "old school" is mostly from the South—itself a reflection of African culinary traditions and ingredients, Native American foodways, French aspirations, Scots Irish appetites, and cooks who were, by and large, slaves.

The driving engine of gastronomy in America now, and the restaurants determining those things we, as consumers, diners, restaurant goers, and cookbook buyers want, crave, and will soon demand, are places like Mission Chinese and people like Danny Bowien. They are boiling down the Asian immigrant experience into newer, ever more reckless, ever more delicious adventures. They are taking us further and further away from the antiquated notions, long meaningless, of "the way things should be."

Cuisines—all cuisines—are always changing, constantly in flux. As Chinese culture moved down the China Straits into what are now Singapore and Malaysia, it changed, mutated, taking on the spices of India, the ingredients and traditions of the Malay. With Genghis Khan's conquests in the West came the spices and flavors of the Middle East and Africa.

Change is good.

So what follows is not just a cookbook. Yes, there are recipes here for some of the tastiest, most insanely flavor-packed, dangerously addictive dishes you are ever likely to find. They are the signature Mission Chinese dishes that set San Francisco, and then New York, afire.

But it's also a story—a uniquely American one—of how to do everything wrong and have it end up brilliantly, gloriously right.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook will be published by Anthony Bourdain/Ecco on November 10 (pre-order on Amazon).

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