In Mexico City, there are women who spend their lifetimes making tacos. On street corners, in neighborhood markets, in makeshift kitchens, this is where the perfect, platonic ideals of tacos can be found. We romanticize these bites, dismayed that something so simple as a tortilla wrapped around a tablespoon of filling is so hard to find in New York City. But the taco’s simplicity belies its subtle complexities. Mexican cuisine is as technically difficult as any other, and understanding every element, from the patina of the comal (pan) to the wavering heat of the chiles to the flattening of the masa — by hand, press, or machine — takes dedication. A lifetime is sometimes still not enough.
Fortunately, our city is giving Mexico its due. As the global North becomes attuned to the culinary pleasures of the South, the humble trinity of corn, peppers, and beans is infatuating chefs, food media, and eaters alike. We are host to a slew of new taquerias. Shiny mechanical tortilla presses have supplanted the Berkel meat slicer as the must-have tool. And the young restaurateur Danny Bowien, a bicoastal Korean-born, Oklahoma-raised chef blasted into fame for cooking cheap Chinese food, is the newest ambassador of the trend.
At his Mission Cantina on the Lower East Side, Bowien and his crew, helmed by chef Zach Swemle, deserve credit for adapting the arduous process of nixtamalization, from-scratch corn tortilla production, to a busy Manhattan restaurant. The expensive, two-day task demands a fulltime tortilla-maker on the payroll and involves soaking dried corn kernels from Anson Mills overnight in a water — calcium hydroxide solution that releases the hulls from the kernels. The husk is rinsed away and the corn is boiled, ground into meal, fashioned into dough, and passed through a Lenin tortilla press, which sits in an open window into the kitchen and is as mesmerizing to watch as a lava lamp.
The corn masa disks go from raw to cooked and directly into the cook’s hand, where they form the base for the dozen or so tacos ($5.50 for two) on the menu. And that transformation — a tortilla hot off the press with the arresting aroma of freshly cooked corn — makes up for the chore. The smell and flavor of the tortillas are consummate, though the texture is inconsistent, sometimes mealy and undercooked. But when the kitchen hits the sweet spot, they are some of the best tortillas in town, model platforms for Distrito Federal–style stews known as guisados, such as rabbit braised in a coffee and hibiscus mole, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and drizzled with crema; stewed pork cheek with pickled peppers and a bright cabbage slaw; and shreds of slow-cooked lamb spiked with cumin and smoked prune.
Also in the Mexico City tradition are tacos filled with vegetables, superb touchstones in a cuisine too often misconceived as lard-, cheese-, and cream-laden. The bright green broccoli rabe tacos with kernels of corn, the pumpkin mole crowned with toasted pepitas, and mushroom tacos topped with chicharron de queso — a crisp made of toasted cheese — are as intriguing as the meat options.
The taco fillings shift, as do the appetizers of salads, ceviche, and vegetable plates. The chicken wings ($11), deep-fried, coated with dried mole spices, splashed with chile vinegar, crema, and cotija cheese, ape the similar brash flavors found in the Mission Chinese version of the dish but less successfully so. Nevertheless, they are on every table.
A bricolage of Southern and Asian touches is cleverly interwoven throughout the menu: The guacamole ($9) comes with puffy shrimp chips and shards of chicharron; tostadas ($7) are spread with white beans and topped with seared chicken livers and julienned cabbage; and the cebollitas preparadas ($8), grilled spring onions, sweet and citrusy, are blackened with char and nori in a buttery, tangled heap. Order them.
The large-format dishes that have featured lamb ribs, roasted trout, and whole chickens are true feasts. That chicken ($32.50) spends an hour revolving on a rotisserie and is then broken down, grilled, and mounted on rice, nubbins of chorizo, raisins, and pecans slick with melted chicken fat and splashed with vinegar. Flanked by tortillas, two salsas, and crema, it is the definition of a crowd pleaser.
Somewhat surprisingly, most dishes are devoid of any actual heat. Mexican food does not need to be spicy, but eschewing the searing possibilities that were flaunted in the extreme at Mission Chinese is a handicap. Bowien may be more adept with Chinese ingredients, but there are delicious meals to be had here. Fluency only comes with practice and repetition. Mission Cantina is well on its way.