The East Village is becoming a hotbed of new Chinese restaurants. In the last couple of years, the neighborhood has seen mouth-searing Hunan (Hunan Bistro), Sichuan from a respected Philadelphia chain (Han Dynasty), hot pot with individual burners for each diner (Hot Pot Central), stylish new dry hot pot (MaLa Project), an updated take on Chinese dumplings in modern surroundings (Mimi Cheng’s), and dim sum from a prestigious Hong Kong chain (Tim Ho Wan). Recently, Little Tong Noodle Shop appeared at the corner of 11th Street and First Avenue, bent on introducing us to a new noodle.
That noodle is mixian, a rice pasta shaped like spaghetti, but thinner, paler, and floppier. Mixian hails from Yunnan, a southern province of China adjacent to Southeast Asia, and the noodle is a cousin of pho, though not as richly textured. But Little Tong isn’t really dishing up the cuisine of Yunnan — instead, via chef Simone Tong, it builds a menu around the noodle, much like East Village ramen shops concentrate on a single starch in multiple variations. Some of the bowls offer Yunnanese flourishes, such as mushrooms and pickled chiles.
Indeed, Little Tong passes over one of the most famous use of mixian: the so-called “crossing the bridge noodles,” enjoyed for their charming back story as much as for their deliciousness. Rather, the café — which occupies a former schnitzel restaurant spawned from a truck, and before that a bakery — offers the rice pasta in six variations.
Of the four bowls my crew and I tried on a first visit, the one that really stood out was grandma chicken mixian ($16). It offered spice-dusted hunks of pulled chicken (the menu describes it as “chicken confit”) in a rich chicken stock with a tea egg, chopped Chinese broccoli, black sesame garlic oil, and pickled chiles — adding a welcome tartness and a trace of heat. Flower petals were strewn across the surface, reminding us of springtime. Here’s a bowl of noodles with well-balanced flavors that you could enjoy again and again.
By contrast, little pot mixian, sporting a pork broth, was muted and under-seasoned, despite its component of ground pork belly and garlic chives. A version of dan dan noodles featuring mixian instead of the usual wheat noodles was good, with extra-crunchy peanuts and a pleasing afterbuzz of green peppercorns, though it lacked the expected chile oil to make it hot enough. The pickled mustard seeds were a showy inclusion, though not a bad one.
The strangest bowl of the ones we tried was called Banna shrimp mixian, presumably referring to an autonomous prefecture in the extreme south of the province, near Burma, Laos, and Thailand. It contained plenty of shrimp in a smoked-tomato-and-shellfish broth laced with coconut milk. But the whole thing wasn’t as flavorful as the ingredient list would suggest, tasting a little too much like Campbell’s tomato soup.
Priced at $14 to $17, the bowls will not be enough for heartier appetites, and you need a starter to make a full meal (priced $3 to $13). From a choice of eight, there’s a bowl of egg-drop soup with salmon roe; a collection of pickled Western vegetables that include cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, and celery; and a serving of crunchy cukes in “bang bang” sauce, which does a convincing imitation of chipotle mayo. Of those we tried, the most unusual was a steak tartare mixed with chopped carrots, with a couple of schmears of what’s labeled Sichuan butter on the interior of the bowl, and a swatch of flaky roti on the side. Beer and sake available and the tip is included in the price.