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 reservations aren’t taken.
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.)