One of China’s most famous noodle dishes has long been in short supply in New York City. Utilizing the mixian rice noodles recently introduced at the East Village’s Little Tong, the soup hails from Yunnan, China’s southernmost province. It is called “crossing the bridge noodles,” and has a fascinating legend behind it, involving the wife of a student who sequesters himself on an island to study for some imperial exams. The island is approachable only by a very long bridge.
The spouse makes him lunch every day, but when she carries it across the bridge, the dish gets cold and he complains. Eventually, she invents a method by which the broth is pooled in a separate vessel covered by an insulating layer of oil, with the soup’s ingredients on the side. So when she reaches the island and assembles the soup, the ingredients cook in the broth and the dish can be served piping hot. (There are many versions of this story.)
Now, almost miraculously, a restaurant has appeared in Sunset Park that specializes in this noodle soup and does it exceedingly well. The place is called Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle, and it’s located on 59th Street just off Seventh Avenue. The premises is slightly below ground level, has only a few tables, and is decorated with elaborate murals that recount the soup’s history and how to eat it.
The restaurant serves two basic stocks served in crocks that keep it hot. (No insulating layer of oil is needed, and anyway, the crocks come from only as far away as the kitchen.) Bargain priced at $7.95, one version is opaque white and features a long-boiled chicken stock; the other is tomato-based.
Eight variations on the soup are available, numbered C3 through C10 on the menu, with variations focused on add-ins. E8, for example, substitutes tough and fatty beef navel (part of the brisket) for the usual tender beef rolls and hits it with plenty of chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns ($9.95). This is a hot-food addict’s dream. C4 delivers a pork chop, while C6 adds chitterlings (veal small intestines, for organ lovers only).
The broth arrives separately, along with a bowl of rice noodles and a handsome rectangular tray with the ingredients to add to the broth that include bean curd skin, soy bean paste, a raw quail egg, pickled mustard greens, a chicken wing, chives, pressed bean curd, wood ear mushrooms, kernel corn, and Spam. You’ll also find rolls of raw beef and lettuce. After setting the tray and the bowl in front of you, the waitress rapidly and efficiently sweeps all the ingredients into the broth and stirs vigorously. Your soup is ready!
With a ladle and chopsticks, fish around the broth and pull out noodles and ingredients as you sip the still-scalding broth, which the receptacle keeps at an almost-boiling temp. The soup is supremely delectable, and may be made spicier by adding the chile oil on the side.
A number of worthwhile apps are also available, even though they are unnecessary given the quantity of soup. Accentuated with pickled chiles, the “cold spicy beancurd skin” ($3.95) is superb, and so is the “pumpkin pancake,” which is a species of fried Japanese-style mochi. Most unusual is something called Hmong’s style beef, referring to a hilltop Southeast Asian tribe that is represented in the population of Yunnan. It is a big plate of scraggly and slightly sweet beef jerky.
New York City has been waiting for a great version of crossing the bridge noodles for a long time, and now we have it.