There was a day before The Baby, mortgage payments and other responsibilities when The Mission was a regular haunt. The crowds would pack the converted Wesleyan Church, leaving The Wife and I to swill homemade sangria and beers at the bar, only to stumble tableward for fresh tortilla chips, salsa and the glorious offerings on the menu.
Situated on the corner where Montgomery, Jefferson and Onondaga Streets meet at Columbus Circle, the Syracuse Wesleyan Methodist Church was built in 1840 and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Its members were deeply involved in the abolitionist movement, funneling fugitive slaves from the South to safety in the North and Canada. The church would disband and fall into disrepair before being purchased by its current owner. Working with the local historical society, the renovations kept the historic integrity of the building intact, while incorporating the ambience of a Mexican/Central American mission church.
The menu breaks into two — static and stable. The seasonal rotates appetizers and main dishes, though the components typically remain the same. There is always a nacho, quesadilla or empanada on the menu; the fillings and toppings change. Entrees always feature a fish, chicken or carne asada, but the method of preparation, spicing and sides vary by the season. The Mission is a locavore-friendly establishment. Cheeses, produce and meats are sourced locally, if possible.
The static menu is where The Wife and I have been fed wonderfully over the years. Diners desiring burritos and tacos choose beans (Cuban black or refried pinto), filling (beans, chicken, shredded beef or pork al pibil) and a salsa (pica de gallo, chipotle, tomatillo or serrano). Diners pick a stuffing for the enchilada half of the menu, choosing from three-cheese, chicken, chicken mole and shredded beef (though the kitchen will make a pork enchilada on request). All are served with Spanish rice and a vinegary red cabbage salad that even The Wife tears into.
Homemade sangria is made on site from red wine, sugar, and fruit juice. I suspect brandy makes its way into the blend, but I can’t prove it (The Mission can’t serve liquor; New York State blue laws prevent a restaurant within a certain distance of a church from doing so. It’s rear neighbor is an African-American mission church.). The sangria marries sweet and dry together, a theme for the menu.
Guests are greeted with menus, water and homemade chips and salsa. On busier nights, you have a shot at fresh-from-the-fryer chips. Friday night, when we went out to celebrate The Wife’s birthday, the restaurant was full but the wait was less than 10 minutes. Still, they’re the best damn tortilla chips you’ll eat. The pico de gallo is a very mild blend of jalepeño, tomato, onion and cilantro.
The typical Friday soup is a seafood chowder, but the kitchen went out on a limb this time with a pureed plantain soup with coconut milk, cilantro and scotch bonnet peppers, and garnished with curried cream and a deep-fried plantain chip. The married flavor theme returned with smoke and heat. The waiter — a bespectaled gentleman whom has served us before, and loves to over enunciate and share his knowledge of everything — cautioned that the pepper was evident, but not overpowering. He was spot on. The flavor of the plantain really stood out, muting the coconut milk. The pepper hit you in the back of the mouth, as it should, but did not dominate. It was near perfect, but for the curry.
One of The Mission’s long time great specials is the seafood enchilada. It’s also The Wife’s favorite. Pureed shrimp and scallops are cooked, rolled in a corn tortilla, topped with a red sauce and cheese, and baked until brown. This is a special that does no wrong in her eyes, and this was no different. My burrito of pork al pibil with refried beans and tomatillo (in fairness, I don’t believe I’ve ever had any other meat on the menu) was spot on. Cooked in achiote and orange, the pork falls apart at the mere touch of a fork.
It would be incorrect and unfair to call The Mission a Mexican restaurant. It uses the phrase Pan-American, as the menu draws a lot of Caribbean, and Central and South American flavors into its dishes.
The Mission serves one of my favorite local desserts. The Tres Leches cake is a white cake soaked in a blend of three milks — whole, condensed and evaporated. The raspberry-guava compote brings and added sweetness to the otherwise dense, moist dessert. The Wife and I shared it, along with the flan of the day — Mexican chocolate. Mexican chocolate is a smokier, sweeter version, and its versatility extends into the entree side of Mexican cuisine as an ingredient of mole. The thick custard was as decadent as the waiter described, with a chocolate sauce and caramel drizzle to complement.
The Mission is a mid-ranged restaurant, in terms of price. When we first frequented in 1999 or 2000, burritos started in the high $8’s. In more than 10 years, they’ve gone to more than $11. I can live with that sort of inflation.