Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Mission Chinese Food's branch in the Lower East Side (the first of several planned for New York according to chef Danny Bowien) has a lot going for it. Excellent food (see our full review here), a charitable effort that makes you feel good about dining there (75¢ from every entree purchased is donated to the Food Bank of New York, and 75¢ from every glass of wine or shochu goes to various New York-based charities), free beer while you wait for a table (really!), and a Twin Peaks-themed bathroom that makes you want to slowly reveal all your dark feelings over the course of a tv season.
The only thing missing? Real cocktails made with real liquor. Well, not any more. On January 24th, Mission Chinese Food introduced its cocktail menu, with nine different concoctions served in big plastic cups and priced at $12 apiece, with 75¢ being donated to charity.
In true Mission Chinese operating-by-the-seat-of-their-pants style, they made the bold decision to hire first-time bartender Arley Marks, 29, to design the drinks with the help of Torrey Bell-Edwards, 30. A former carpenter and art student from Providence, Marks' only previous cocktailing experience was with private catering gigs.
"I actually think it's an advantage for me. The menu is a lot like the food here, unbounded by tradition, and very un-fussy," Marks says.
Bartender Bell-Edwards, a friend of Bowien's from San Francisco with experience at Elbow Room and Blackbird, agrees. "We're trying to be playful here. A few jokes, lots of seasonal specials—Chef lets us pillage his pantry, so we've always got these awesome Asian ingredients on hand."
"Not coming from a classic cocktail background," Marks says, "our drinks are really invented from the ground up."
For inspiration, Marks looked towards traditional Chinese medicine. "I was particularly interested in the ideas of heating and cooling foods, and the balance you want in a meal."
"Most of the food here is in the heating category, which is why we have so many soothing drinks on the menu. Condensed milk, soy milk, and bitter melon are all supposed to help cool the body. Salt and citrus also counteract some of those hot dishes."
Mission Chinese Food
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.