Bill Simmons has written before about athletes that were deemed "underrated" for so long and by so many people that they soon became "overrated". In this age of social media and 24/7 access to everything, it makes sense that such a phenomenon is prevalent. It's so easy for something, whether a person, place, food item (the Cronut), or whatever it may be (Gangnam Style), to get a lot of hype and "go viral" very quickly. While I was eating takeout from Mission Chinese Food, I thought about how the reverse might also happen. It's probably a rarer occurrence though, for something to be so overexposed and deemed overrated that they fall back under the radar.
When I first ate the food at Mission Chinese Food, I felt the food was very overrated. Not that it was bad per se, but just underwhelming given all the hype. As someone who grew up with both the more subtle flavors of Cantonese cuisine and the concentrated flavors of Shanghainese cooking, I found the flavor profiles too muddled in some of the items from Mission Chinese. Dishes seemed confused in their composition, unable to decide between the more traditional Chinese form of one dish among many to go with rice, and the Western style of each entree being specifically balanced to stand on its own. In addition to being somewhat muddled, in some dishes the actually pretty good underlying flavors and ingredients were just hidden by too much numbing spiciness. I do understand that authentic Sichuan food is often like that. But being authentic does not make it good. Food around the world is often made a specific way out of necessity, whether it be due to ingredient availability or for adapting to the climate, and not necessarily to maximize taste in a vacuum.
So yea, overrated. Although I have to admit, I only tried a handful of their more well-known items. Like many Chinese restaurants (although they refer to themselves as serving Americanized Oriental food), there are a lot of choices on the menu. But what separates them from many other places is that they continue to add new items to the menu. It is this continued innovation that I think is underrated. Even if your initial reaction was similar to mine, I think there's enough potential there that Mission Chinese Food has become a bit underrated in their ability to broaden their repertoire.
Food: Core items that have been on the menu since they opened
For some reason the pastrami had a really strong smoke flavor. Even when I've actually eaten at Katz's the smoke flavor was not as overpowering as the pastrami was here. This was a decent rendition of kung pao, but I just didn't see how the kung pao elevated the pastrami or vice versa.
The broccoli here is Chinese broccoli, which is one of my favorite vegetables. But there's nothing special about this dish. No real smokiness came through in the oyster sauce, and the brisket was a pretty fatty slab that wasn't as tender as I would have liked.
The pork jowls were tasty, but this was another dish where I thought things were muddled and had no real identity. The fermented black beans were strewn here and there, but did not feel like a main component of the sauce. The radish provided some crispness to the texture, but was not assertive or bright enough to balance out the pork jowl.
THRICE COOKED BACON
The flavors here were decent, but I would have preferred a meatier cut of pork belly than the bacon. The rice cakes were ok, but once again I was confused as to their purpose. There wasn't enough in the dish where it asserted itself as a main starch component, and as an accompaniment I thought something with a crispier, crunchier texture would have worked much better.
The tofu was decent and the pork shoulder was flavorful and worked better than the usual ground pork. There was just too much sichuan pepper for my taste. Which is ok, except that on a subsequent visit when I asked for the dish to be made with less of the sichuan pepper, they told me they could not accommodate that request. Nevertheless, the numbing spice level has varied every time I've ordered it, and this is a delicious dish when they're not as heavy-handed with it.
SALT COD FRIED RICE
While the ingredients were not particularly special in my view, the fried rice had pretty good wok hei.
Food: Newer items
This was excellent. It was well fried, sealing in the moisture of the (way more than expected) meat of the fish. It held up superbly for takeout. The hot pepper jelly was great, with the sweetness helping to balance out the spiciness, which was fragrant and not the numbing kind.
I assume this was their version of 蒜泥白肉, and it was a great rendition. The soy caramel really enhanced the umami in the dish, and the thinly shaved pork belly had an excellent textural mix of fat and meat. The menu says that this had sichuan pepper as well, but I didn't taste any, which was probably a good thing.
A tasty version of Thai pineapple fried rice. The bbq pork jowl worked better than I would have thought, and the pineapple pickle was nicely sweet, which went well with the curry. I was disappointed, though, that I could barely detect any dungeness crab. At $16 for fried rice, it was bad enough that I couldn't see any crab, let alone not taste any.
CHICKEN! FRIED RICE
This was another tasty fried rice, and the good wok hei was not covered up by the schmaltz, which was one of my initial worries. However, given the richness of the liver and schmaltz, I would have preferred something brighter than radishes for contrast. I also would have preferred a lot more chicken heart pieces, which were excellent texturally with the fried rice.
CATFISH A LA SICHUAN
Not all of the newer dishes were successes. This dish, which was actually more like a soup, failed on multiple levels. It was kind of like a tom yum soup, but the brine leaned more sweet than sour and the balance was off. The sichuan pepper once again did more to stifle the flavors than to bring them out. There was very little fish, and the bacon had an overpowering smokiness to it. It seemed like a bunch of interesting things that were thrown together, but didn't gel to become a coherent composed dish.
Service and Decor:
Honestly, I've never eaten at the restaurant. The decor is just so not my style. But I still experienced good service while getting takeout. On a recent visit, they only realized that one of the items that I'd ordered ran out by the time the rest of my order was ready. Not only did they allow me to replace it with anything else on the menu that I wanted, they even threw in an extra dish. There are a lot of nice restaurants that wouldn't do this, and I'd certainly never imagine it happening at any Chinese restaurant. I found that to be pretty impressive.
I do believe that Mission Chinese has been overrated and overhyped. (James Beard award? Really?) But that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of underrated potential still there. It's also kind of hard to root against them given their business practices, such as free beer for people waiting in line and a donation of 75 cents to the Food Bank of NYC from each entree sold.
Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard St
(between Stanton St & Rivington St)