Buy, Sell, Hold is a new column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).
Little Tong Noodle Shop, a Yunnan-inspired restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, offers six noodle preparations. Five of them list chiles or peppercorns as ingredients. But just one, the lone cold noodle dish, carries a warning.
“This is a tearjerker,” is the caveat published below the chicken mala ($15, service-included). It’s a combination of pulled chicken, chilled spicy broth, pickled cucumbers, shallot chips, and Yunnan’s famed, fermented, non-glutinous rice noodles, called mixian.
I swung by Little Tong last week, when the restaurant, run by WD~50 alum Simone Tong, was packed. I waited about 10 minutes for a table — not bad in a city where a ramen queue can exceed an hour — and ordered the chicken mala.
A server cautioned me on the heat levels. “Like, is it competitive eating contest spicy?” I asked. “No, but it’s not far off,” he replied. Then he added the following, with a wink: “If you finish it, you don’t get it for free.”
Such disclaimers are unnecessary; the chicken mala is balanced. It might clear up the sinuses a bit, but it doesn’t induce the type of pain that will prompt anyone to throw in the towel and give up. (Go look up Mission Chinese Food’s Chongqing wings for that type of overwrought spice experience.)
Little Tong’s mixian sport the type of slippery texture that recall the soft white noodles floating in a bowl of Campbell’s — albeit with a touch of sourness, and a hint more density. Their tensile strength is about on par with vermicelli, which is to say they’re more delicate than al dente. They can be consumed more quickly than most ramen noodles, and they do not sit as heavily in the stomach.
In the case of the chicken mala, a citrus soy imparts the noodles with an acidic punch, a sensation that’s followed by a mid-level heat — a pleasant “October in Los Angeles” warmth rather than “Las Vegas summer.” Torn bits of fowl provide chew and a delicate poultry tang.
Then the mouth starts to vibrate. A low-grade numbingness sets in. This is a Goldilocks-level mala buzz, a product of sufficient Sichuan peppercorn to let the user know it’s there, but not enough to mimic a dosage of novocaine.
When I asked what inspired this dish, general manager Emmeline Zhao wrote via email that Tong, who was born in Chengdu, simply wanted to make something she craved, something with “the same bold, kicking spice that she grew up with” in Southwest China.
The chicken mala, while cold, manages to warm the gut without overburdening it. It’s listed as a fall special, but “it’s also certainly a contender to eventually have a second life on our core menu,” Zhao writes. It costs $15, a price that, like every item here, is inclusive of service. “Our staff is amazingly committed to our system, and are the biggest cheerleaders for it,” Zhao writes of the tip-free policy.
I’m rating the mala chicken as a BUY, especially during this chilly week in New York.