Chef Simone Tong, an alum of wd~50, was born in Chengdu, the capital city of the Sichuan province, and spent time living in Australia and Singapore. But New York is already littered with Sichuan restaurants, and when she looked to open her first restaurant, she had fallen in love with food from another province anyway — Yunnan, the diverse, southwest province of China.
When Little Tong Noodle Shop opens tonight in the East Village, the flavors from Yunnan will be center stage. “The variety of Chinese restaurants in China is huge,” Tong says. “Why can’t we see some of that outside China?”
Tong focuses on mixian, a spaghetti-shaped rice noodle that she uses as a base for a variety of broths and sauces. It was her favorite food growing up, and she sees lovers of noodle soups like ramen, udon, or pho falling in love with mixian, too.
The “little pot mixian” dish at Little Tong comes from a popular style in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming. It’s served in a pork broth that has been cooked for hours and topped with a chili vinaigrette that turns it into a sour, spicy concoction. The noodles come in a copper pot.
Another dish, the “grandma chicken,” comes from a different region of Yunnan where black chicken confit is a component of mixian. At Little Tong, the chef uses more conventional chicken for confit. For that kick of black color, she adds a black sesame garlic oil. It arrives with a tea egg, Chinese broccoli, pickled daikon, and fermented chili in a chicken broth. All the noodle dishes on the opening menu cost between $14 and $17.
“It’s the comfort, it’s the texture of the noodle,” Tong says. “It’s almost aromatic.”
Tong didn’t come to New York to open a restaurant. Her original intent was to study math and economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But after seeing a TV feature on Wylie Dufresne, she knew she wanted to pursue cooking instead.
She signed up to study at the Institute of Culinary Education in 2010, with an internship at wd~50 that stretched into a five years working for Dufresne. Even so, it was no question that she would focus on Chinese food when debuting her own restaurant.
Tong, who has partnered with restaurateur Simon Xi for Little Tong, is not the first to serve Yunnan food in New York. Yun Nan Flavour Garden in Sunset Park also serves a menu of mixian noodles, and Yunnan BBQ also served Yunnan-inspired food on the Lower East Side before closing last summer.
Still, it’s fairly uncommon to see cuisine from the province here. “I love the Chinese food here, but it’s not diverse enough,” Tong says. “I appreciate the depth of culture in China. I want to share it with the world in whatever simple way I can do.”
Little Tong opens Wednesday for dinner at 177 First Ave., at East 11th Street. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Check out more photos of the space and the menu below.