What is it about tacos that attracts chefs not previously known for them?
It’s a cantina in name only: a hip, divey-looking place on a busy street corner, where the Mexican tradition is very loosely re-interpreted for the Lower East Side. The “Mission” DNA is very much in evidence, from the minimalist décor to the tiny space where most of the parties are walk-ins. (Reservations are taken on the website via City Eats.)
The sizable kitchen on two levels is a formidable operation. Bowien, as he does at nearby Mission Chinese, sources his ingredients with some care. The quirky menu is uniquely his own, and will be found nowhere else. It’s fairly inexpensive, with appetizers $8.50–13, individual tacos $4–5, and side dishes $6–8. A whole chicken or a rack of lamb ribs is $35, but you need a posse to share them. The individual tacos are quite hearty: two of them plus an appetizer is ample, though you could order three if you’re really hungry.
Unfortunately, what could be a very good restaurant is scuppered by the service. The kitchen sends out a bowl of fried peanuts in chili sauce (above left), but then your entire order comes out practically at once: the appetizer and both tacos. Either it’s a cynical table-turning strategy, or the kitchen just can’t space out an order. (Mission Chinese is just as crowded, but didn’t seem as rushed when I tried it.)
As Pete Wells pointed out in The Times not long ago, tacos start to deteriorate the instant they leave the kitchen. To send them out 3 minutes after the appetizer spoils the point. As you might guess, I loved the appetizer and liked the first taco, but the second was a mush of indeterminate flavors by the time I got around to it.
Wings ($11; above left) are a messy delight, made with mole spices, chile vinegar, sesame and crema.
Each taco is served with a double flour tortilla, which makes me think they’re expected to become mushy—not a good sign. Of the two, I liked the Alambres ($5; far right) with brisket, bacon, queso, pepper, and onions, better than the Carnitas ($4.50; above center) with pork shoulder, crispy jowl and pork cracklings.
There is currently no hard liquor license, but the bar makes respectable beer and wine cocktails, including a pretty good sangria ($7). Try the dirty horchata ($10) with beer, almond and cinnamon.
The friendly servers gave wise ordering advice—never a sure thing at this type of place—but it was apparent they wanted the table back, and I could see why. I was seated immediately at about 6:00pm on a Friday evening, but by 6:30 the vestibule was packed. At prime times, you could wait a while.
I’d be eager to try more of the menu, but at present the rushed service at Mission Cantina works against it, especially when the backbone of the menu is a cuisine that deteriorates so quickly. When you’ve waited a while to be seated, you don’t want to be hurried out the door.
Mission Cantina (172 Orchard St. at Stanton St., Lower East Side)
Food: A taqueria, liberally interpreted
Service: Rushed, but friendly
Ambiance: A small dining room, but comfortable enough for what it is