Wok Steady: How Danny Bowien Made New York’s Mission Chinese Food Possible

But hype aside, what's the food taste like?

It seemed an unlikely notion, but Mr. Bowien’s lack of experience turned out to be an advantage. Out came the dishes: Kung pao corned beef. Korean rice cakes, slathered in a volcanic red-hot oil, tossed with thrice-cooked bacon. It was Chinese food, reinterpreted and remixed. Somehow it worked.

Soon, Mission Chinese was generating real buzz. Everyone from Martha Stewart to Ferran Adrià dropped in. Mark Bittman at The New York Times compared the food to the creature in Alien (“an unreal exotic that bursts out of a normal skin”). The restaurant received accolades from Bon Appetit and the ever-grizzled Alan Richman in GQ, who declared himself “infatuated.”

In December, Mr. Bowien decided he was finally ready to give New York another shot. But first, he ran the idea by some writers he knew. His first call was to Mr. Bittman, who was thrilled at the prospect. He floated the scheme to Peter Meehan and Chris Ying, editors of Lucky Peach. “Chris was like, ‘You’re fucking crazy, dude,’” he recalled. “Meehan was just like, ‘Yeah, you’re fucking crazy, dude, but it would save me trips to San Francisco.’”

Their hesitations were understandable. Mr. Bowien was tempting New York’s malevolent restaurant gods. For one thing, the city is indisputably the most expensive place to open in the country, an obvious impediment to a spot that donates $0.75 off of every entree to charity. Moreover, while Mr. Bowien’s exotic dishes make for ideal food blogger photo bait, they’re not exactly accessible to the masses. Mission’s success in San Francisco seemed an auspicious sign, but New Yorkers don’t always take kindly to heavily hyped outsiders.

Remember Nate Appleman, who came from San Francisco’s A16 to open up Keith McNally’s Bowery pizzeria, Pulino’s? He’s now working for Chipotle. What about Texas import Tim Love, whose Lonesome Dove Bistro was laughed out of town by Frank Bruni? Even the famed Joël Robuchon just packed up his Manhattan shop.

New Yorkers have been particularly skeptical about their West Coast counterparts. There was the infamous moment at the 2009 New York Food and Wine Festival, when David Chang openly mused to Anthony Bourdain about San Fransisco’s food scene: “Fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate,” he raved. “Do something with your food!” Mr. Chang promptly had an upcoming Bay Area appearance canceled by its offended host.

Which is why it’s telling that Mr. Chang’s Momofuku group had its James Beard Awards party at Mission Chinese Food.

Mr. Bowien said that well before the opening, he reached out to Mr. Chang for advice. His tips, Mr. Bowien recalled, were: “‘Power through,’ and ‘People are going to fuck you over,’ and, basically, just: ‘Take care of yourself, and make sure that you … don’t kill yourself.’

“It was probably one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve had, ever,” he sighed.

On a recent Thursday night, at 9 p.m., a crowd huddled around the front in sweltering heat, giving the keg a workout: There was a two-hour wait.

The critics had been ecstatic, most notably, New York Times dining critic Pete Wells, who recently awarded Mission Chinese Food two stars. That was the same rating assigned in 2006 by Bruni to the Flushing, Queens hot spot Spicy & Tasty, a restaurant with a similar taste profile to Mission’s, if a lot less whimsy.

And perhaps its the latter quality that explains the hype around Mr. Bowien and New York Magazine’s appraisal of his Szechuan-influenced “Asian hipster” cooking as “scrupulously on-trend.” Less so, the former.

What Danny Bowien cooks at Mission Chinese is indisputably interesting, but in a moment when the awe over molecular gastronomy is fading like day-old maitake foam, his success says as much about the audience and the Zeitgeist as it does about the quality of his food.

Playfulness is a key conceit: A spicy Chongqing chicken is served in wing-form, like a psychotic import from Buffalo. Take that, Grand Szechuan! Pig tails are braised in root beer. And so on. Such dishes pose a dare to diners, appealing to the would-be foodie within us all, while coolly shrugging off any questions about authenticity.

[It doesn't merit the lazy comparisons to Chang's Momofuku empire so much as one to the "authentic" Italian-American cuisine of Rich Carbone and Mario Torrisi. Their take on Italian food couldn't be further from Little Italy, let alone the real one, in the same way that Danny Bowien is less Chinatown and more "China Girl."]

Best of all, orders are priced to move at $15 or less. And as at the San Francisco location, $0.75 of every entree goes to a charity (in this case, Food Bank of New York).

“I don’t even look at it as fundraising; I look at it as just like helping people,” Mr. Bowien explained. “Hooking people up.”

In an industry known for its high turnover, Mr. Bowien’s retention rate is freakishly high. He runs a mostly female kitchen, free of the typical machismo that rules so many cooking lines. He speaks endlessly of his reverence for his culinary peers. “You don’t want to impress them so much as make them comfortable,” he said. “You don’t want to be like, ‘Hey, look at this new shit I’m doing.’ You want to be like, ‘Hey, eat this ’cause it’s delicious, and get a bunch of drinks. Just have fun. ’Cause you need to decompress. It’s your only day off.’”

Which is perhaps the real secret of Mr. Bowien’s success. He and his restaurant are likeable. Crazy, but it seems to be working. He even recently scored a book deal with Anthony Bourdain’s book imprint.

And of course, he’s expanding—first to Williamsburg, and then to his hometown, Oklahoma City.

“My goal is to open these next few restaurants very quickly,” he said, “because we’re not going to be the hot shit forever.”

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek