How Grandma's Secret Recipe Took Mission Chinese Food to the Next Level
You'll see Josefina's House Special Chicken on the menu at the new Mission Chinese Food, but you won't know the full story until you talk to Executive Chef Angela Dimayuga.
Angela Dimayuga is running late to meet me at her restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, on a thankfully sunny March morning in New York City's Chinatown. But it's not because she's battling a brutal hangover, like many of her chef peers would be at the ungodly hour of 11 AM, or even because she left the house later than expected.
"I missed my stop on the subway," she tells me apologetically. "I was really into my book and I was like, Aww, man!"
Dimayuga is reading Miranda July's 2012 book It Chooses You, a story about the filmmaker's struggle and ennui while trying to complete her second screenplay. In the book, July becomes obsessed with the classified "pennysaver" ads in the free newspaper that she gets as part of her weekly junk mail haul, and visits the people who advertise in it to get to know them personally. Dimayuga had become so engrossed in the story that she didn't realize that her subway stop had come and gone until it was too late.
The book seems like a fitting choice. Like July in It Chooses You, Dimayuga is working on her second opus: the new location of Mission Chinese Food, the wildly popular weirdo-Szechuan eatery where Dimayuga serves as the executive chef. It's probably the only place in America where you can eat an entire platter of uni alongside a diverse cornucopia of fellow patrons that somehow simultaneously includes Wylie Dufresne, Leonardo DiCaprio, a pair of Taiwanese grandmothers, and a smattering of beanie-clad twentysomethings—all to an impossibly loud soundtrack of Aaliyah.
The restaurant is a bigger, badder version of its Lower East Side and San Francisco predecessors—the former closed in October 2013 after just over a year due to a pervasive rodent issue caused by a nearby condominium development, and the latter is nearing its fifth birthday. What all locations have shared, despite differing menus and a 3,000-mile span between its East Coast and West Coast outposts, are long wait times and a cult following. Though the newest incarnation has only been open for a few months, it's packed to the rafters every night with a colorful mix of locals, tourists, celebrities, food writers, and Michelin-starred chefs, each sweating their way through piles of xinjiang-spiced Chongqing Chicken Wings, punishingly hot Ma Po Tofu, and Squid Ink Peanut Noodles doused in numbing oil.
I'm here to see Dimayuga prepare one of the most impressive items on the freshly revamped and expanded menu of the new location: Josefina's House Special Chicken. The dish was learned from, and named for, Dimayuga's Filipino grandmother, whom she also calls her "Lola" (an affectionate term for "grandma" in Tagalog).
She disappears into the walk-in and retrieves a whole, raw, pale pink chicken, head and feet still attached, and lays it on a cutting board in front of us. Like all of the restaurant's chickens, it was sourced from a Chinese-run farm in Ellenville, about two hours north.
"This is called a Bobo chicken," she says. "The story with these is they're also called Buddhist chickens, because traditionally, Buddhist people like to cook the chicken whole."
The chicken's proportions seem unusual compared to the massive-chested broilers that flood American supermarkets. "The legs are really big, because they like the dark meat," she explains. "They like red- and black-feathered chickens. They're bred to have smaller breasts and bigger thighs."
The first step to creating Josefina's chicken is to remove the entire ribcage, so that the carcass can be stuffed with an impossibly rich, savory stuffing of sausage and eggs. Dimayuga carefully draws her knife down the top of its neck, slicing along the spine with surgical precision.
"Because it's so labor-intensive, this is something my grandmother would make for all of us," Dimayuga says, peeling back the skin and separating hunks of meat from organs and cartilage. "She would make [several] of these for big family events."
With her massive knife, she uses impressively tiny strokes to retain any salvageable flesh before removing the bones. "When I was home and [my grandmother] taught me, it was just so cute seeing her tiny hands do these tiny tasks and showing me her really crappy boning knife," Dimayuga laughs.
Dimayuga is the second-youngest of six children: four girls and two boys. Family meals were integral in her family life, which she cites as "a big reason why I started cooking food."
"Right now, it's fun. They get what I'm doing. Initially, when I started working for this company, my mom was like, 'I don't understand why you're working for a Chinese restaurant.' And then [I sent] her a press packet of stuff, and she was like, 'OK, I kind of get it now,'" she says.
Though Danny Bowien's name is more often associated with Mission Chinese Food's mini empire—say, in the recent 2,000-word New York Times profile about the restaurant's reopening—the new location is arguably as much Dimayuga's baby as his. As executive chef, she helped Bowien take the menu from a two-pager to a veritable binder of small plates, noodles, raw seafood, centerpiece dishes (such as Josefina's House Special Chicken), and even pizza, as well as overseeing other non-food flourishes that amount to the "vibe" of the place: decorations, serveware, kitchen dynamics. Every aspect of the new location, from the food to the aesthetic details such as the monkey statuettes behind each table, has some of Dimayuga's touch, even if you don't see her when you come to eat—which, actually, you're pretty likely to do, as she's prone to frequent visits to the floor.
Bowien and Dimayuga's first meeting, which took place just over three years ago, was somewhat serendipitous. After a three-year stint at Brooklyn's Vinegar Hill House, Dimayuga was burnt out and extended some much-needed vacation time into a six-month bike trip through Vietnam. When she returned, she set up a half-dozen interviews in a single day—her first choice at the time was the proposed full-service restaurant for Saltie, the popular Williamsburg sandwich shop, due to it's female-run setup—and in her final meeting, got a missed call from an unknown number.
The mystery caller turned out to be Bowien, whom she had never met and knew little about. A mutual friend had recommended her when he was in the initial stages of planning the first Mission Chinese Food location in New York, at the now-shuttered space on Orchard Street.
On a lark, she rode from Williamsburg to the Lower East Side to meet him, and the two hit it off immediately, despite—or maybe because of—his "super-intense and spontaneous" vibe. Within a few days, he was flying her to Atlanta to trail at a Mission Chinese pop-up.
"I was just weirded out by the whole thing," she shrugs, cutting away the last bit of flesh and lifting the chicken's ribcage out. "You're a complete stranger, you're asking me to fly to like, Atlanta, to get a job as a chef of this restaurant I have to help open with you, which I've never done before. So it was a leap-of-faith type of thing for both of us."
Soon after, she spent six weeks training for the job at the Mission Chinese Food location in San Francisco (fittingly, nestled on Mission Street within another innocuous-looking Chinese joint, Lung Shan). It was then that her grandmother showed her how to prepare what is now known as Josefina's House Special Chicken. Her mother picked her up from Bowien's house with her trunk full of all of the necessary ingredients and drove her over to Lola's for a surprise lesson.
The dish is a riff on the Filipino version of pollo relleno, and her grandmother has been incredibly secretive about the specifics of the recipe for years. According to Dimayuga, Josefina has lost friendships over protecting the techniques behind this rendition—it's simply that important.
"I found out a lot of things about my family during the time that I got to train in San Francisco," she tells me, pulling out a giant vat of bright red chorizo-spiced pork and a quart-sized container of six-minute soft-boiled eggs. The ribless chicken is restored to plumpness as she stuffs it with a combination of the pork, eggs, Parmesan, butter, olives, raisins, and pickles.
After nestling three eggs neatly in the middle of the chicken's interior and shaking it by its legs to settle the stuffing into every crevice, she pauses pensively. After a moment, she proceeds—while taking out a needle and thread and beginning to sew up the chicken from neck to tail.
In addition to the secret to a perfect pollo relleno, Dimayuga learned a lot of surprising information about her father on that same trip to San Francisco. Her dad had worked as a regional manager for McDonald's for 20 years, and in the 1980s, was locked in competition with another California branch for the bragging rights of highest sales. Around that time, he started getting in hot water with higher-ups for creating back-lit signs in his stores that had blown-up images of sodas, burgers, and fries. In an effort to boost his revenue and speed up service, he was hanging them behind the counter so that at a glance, customers could select a combination of items without having to read through the menu for individual names of products and prices.
When corporate complained about his digression from the established menu format, he explained that customers ordered faster, and more, with his system. "The VP of McDonald's recognized what he did, said amazing work, and they took the idea and called it the Extra Value Meal," she tells me, wrapping the final stitch.
It's no wonder, then, that Dimayuga's family has been so inspiring to her as she's become a rising star of New York's culinary world. She's seen firsthand the pride and success that comes with a well-run restaurant—whether it's a fast-food franchise or a media darling in the Big Apple.
Her casual demeanor, along with her kitchen talent, explains why Mission Chinese Food—with its bridge of fine dining and street food—is the perfect home for her culinary chops. She's the kind of chef who can make a handful of Chinese greens into a James Beard Award-ready dish after being mentally tickled by a Nine Inch Nails show. There's nothing discernibly pretentious about her process; her grandmother's chicken, for example, is simply a celebratory dish that she enjoyed with her family as seen through the lens of Mission Chinese Food's anything-goes attitude. And now, any of the restaurant's guests can eat like they're at a Dimayuga family feast.
As she places the chicken in the oven, Dimayuga tells me that she had only made the chicken twice in her entire life before Bowien suggested adding it to the new menu at Mission Chinese Food, a decision which she initially found "nerve-racking." The third time that Dimayuga made the dish—and the first time she made it at the restaurant—was for René Redzepi, David Chang, and Wylie DuFresne, so her anxiety was understandable. ("I told Danny, 'This is going to be my third time making it, and now I'm going to be making it for them. Like, this is fucked up,'" she recalls.)
But the dish has quickly become one of the most popular large-format dishes on the menu. Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford—Dimayuga's childhood crush—shared it on a recent visit to the restaurant.
After an hour, Dimayuga pulls the chicken from the oven. It has turned a deep golden brown and fills the entire restaurant with the heavenly scent of chorizo spices and roasted meat.
She drains the drippings into a gravy boat, then pulls out a large silver platter. After slicing the chicken into neat, inch-thick portions that show the bright stuffing and soft-boiled eggs within, she lays the chicken on the center of the platter, surrounds it with watercress, and drizzles it with the juices. Despite Mission Chinese Food's casual ambiance, the dish looks patently sophisticated—almost old-school French.
"It's definitely feasty," she says. "It's like a more elegant turducken."
While Mission Chinese Food has received countless accolades for its inventive approach to Chinese cuisine, the chicken—and the other large-format dishes on the menu, such as the clay-baked Beggar's Duck—signify a turning point for its culinary scope. It has historically attracted lovers of its big spice and Expressionist interpretation of Asian flavors, but dishes such as Josefina's House Special Chicken signal its transition towards more formal offerings.
In the dining room, Dimayuga lays a pink tablecloth on the top of a large, rolling silver cart with a clamshell cover, the kind that you see at fancy steakhouses. "It's pretty squeaky and the wheels are kind of messed up, but it works [for getting] to tables," she says. "We spent a ridiculous amount of money [on it]. It's kind of a sore subject."
She carefully lays the platter of chicken on its surface and surrounds it with pale pink faux carnations. From a distance, you probably wouldn't know that they're fake. And even if you do, they're the only hint of tackiness on the otherwise refined spread.
I ask whether Filipino customers are excited to see it on the menu, and she tells me that—like any other guests—they wouldn't necessarily know what to expect at a glance. "It's like a secret thing, because we're serving this at a Chinese restaurant, and it's called 'Josefina's House Special Chicken,'" she explains. "It's very coded, and that's kind of our strategy for people to ask about it. That's why we don't even have a descriptor under it."
Josefina would want it that way. "It's Grandma's secret, and she's very tight with that. It's not even that she'll sometimes give the recipe to people."
"She gave it to me because I'm her granddaughter, and I'm a chef, and she knows that I would appreciate it."