The press blizzard began to blow long before Mission Cantina (172 Orchard Street, 212-254-2233) opened its doors to the public on November 19: Speculation over the space at 172 Orchard being taken over by the Mission Chinese crew, a tomatillo’s lob from the basement Chinese restaurant a half-block south, started months ago. But at long last, after a couple of DOH nightmares which shuttered Mission Chinese, a Twitter-friendly nighttime burrito pop-up, and a series of friends and family dinners, Mission Cantina is open — and it’s slammed. Hoards of foodies, industry members, and scenesters have descended to eat beef tongue tacos topped with peanuts and scoop up guacamole with shrimp chips. Renowned chefs have been stopping in to toast Bowien’s success; even Alice Waters can get down with butterfish ceviche spiked with habenero and coconut.
Expect to wait for a seat. Expect, too, that your service in these early days will be frantic — beers might be whisked away from the tap before the glasses are full; plates might be pulled from the table with a bite or two remaining.
The restaurant occupies a corner space in a haze of blue and pink fluorescent lighting; the ceiling is strung with colorful papeles picados, the colorful Mexican paper banners that decorate our city’s bodegas. The in-house tortilla production, which you can watch through a large kitchen window, spits out the thin corn disks watched over by an obedient cook.
There are no burritos on the menu, much to the dismay of Mission-district expats longing for them, but there are a selection of appetizers, a healthy roster of meat- and vegetable-based tacos, larger plates to share, and vegetable sides.
The mole-spiced chicken wings ($11) — deep-fried and splashed with chile-vinegar, crema, cotija, and sesame seeds — harkens to the same spicy, salty, sour flavor compendium as the Mission Chinese wings.
The scrambled eggs with hominy, sea urchin, and trout roe ($13) are a soft, oozing polyglot of eggs. That this is one of the more popular dishes is probably due to its extravagance and not its taste: The sea funk of uni is offset by arresting pops of roe and spongy huevos.
The tortillas are fragrant and supple, and they cradle fillings like lamb belly, chicken wing with braised octopus, and bbq pork ribs glazed with tamarind. The vegetable tacos ($4-$5) seem initially more intriguing than the meat options — bright green broccoli rabe with kernels of corn, cow’s milk cheese and a pumpkin mole crowned with toasted pepitas.
The larger format items include racks of lamb ribs ($35) and a whole rotisserie chicken ($35) grilled and stuffed with rice, chorizo, and pecans. They seem promising. There’s a bird on most tables, flanked by baskets of tortillas, salsas, and crema.
Many dishes are devoid of any heat, which we hope changes with time. Save the corner edge of that crispy tripe taco for last: It’s a good final perfect bite.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.