In New York’s vaunted restaurant scene, there’s one frequent complaint: the Mexican food. The matter is subjective, of course, and depends whether your tastes run to two-fist  California burritos or the great cheesy Tex-Mex of the Lone Star state, but it’s generally acknowledged that the Big Apple falls short of these places and quite a few others. So in the past few years it’s been refreshing to see some innovative young chefs – and more established toques – trying to change that.

Jean-Georges’ newest restaurant, ABC Cocina, is Mexican-leaning, and April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig opened Salvation Taco last year. There’s also Alex Stupak, who famously switched gears as one of the country’s top pastry chefs to open Empellon Taqueria and Empellon Cocina. Now Danny Bowien, of runaway Asian hit Mission Chinese (one of Bon Appetit‘s top 10 restaurants in 2013), is giving Mexican a whirl at his new place, Mission Cantina.

The last time we spoke with Bowien, he denied that he was opening a Mexican restaurant.  

We suppose you could argue that this isn’t exactly a Mexican restaurant – it’s a restaurant that serves some Mexican dishes, like tacos, but usually with a twist. This has the feel of a neighborhood place, a casual spot to have a beer and a few tacos and maybe something that will surprise you, like a beef heart and scallop ceviche that somehow really works.

The attention to decor is roughly nil: Some colorful Mexican paper cut-outs hang from the ceiling and there’s an odd blue tinge to the lighting, perhaps intended to foil Instagrammers. This being Bowien, it’s hard to avoid the hype, or the lines, but hopefully as these die down, Mission Cantina can fulfill its, er, mission of just being a solid, affordable joint. We also hope the burritos Bowien tried out in a pre-opening pop-up do indeed make an appearance late-night, as the chef has hinted. Like all things Bowien, we’ll have to wait and see.

Of course, Cantina will continue to change things up. When I complimented the chef on the best appetizer I tried, a dish of soft-scrambled eggs with sea urchin, caviar, and spicy chili slices, he shrugged modestly, and responded “we’re probably taking that off the menu.” The only thing I could really get Bowien to endorse was the whole chicken, prepared on a special rotisserie in the back, and by all accounts gunning for status as the best new poultry dish in the city.

Taco-wise, some of the offerings are traditional. There’s a genius carnitas taco made with three kinds of pork: confit shoulder, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth cubes of jowl, and fried chicharron. And some are the sort of unlikely, rock-and-roll combinations you’ll often find at Mission Chinese – chicken wing and octopus? The restaurant had sold out, but I’ve heard good things.

Bowien and company are making the tortillas in house, and, even more impressively, they’re preparing their own masa, which involves treating corn kernels with calcium hydroxide (a.k.a., lime), grinding them, and then making a dough that can be slapped on the griddle, as an employee was doing behind a little window during dinner service.

An enthusiastic crew of young folks is behind the casual yet attentive service, encouraging you to order another drink not because they want to upsell, I sensed, but to make sure everyone’s having a good time. The succinct drinks menu–three cocktails made with soju (including the rather hilariously named Dirty Horchata) plus a house michelada, cheap beer, red or white sangria, and those colorful Mexican soft drinks everyone loves–won’t get you too trashed on a Tuesday. It’s what you’d expect from a neighborhood joint.

Mission Cantina
172 Orchard St.
New York, NY 10002

Jenny Miller