Rice noodles shaped like spaghetti are taking New York by storm. In the province of Yunnan, right by the Chinese border with Southeast Asia, they are called mixian and mainly used in hot pots. In the region around Guilin, just south of Hunan in Guangxi, they are called mi fen and usually served in stir fries and soups.
Our latest rice-noodle parlor, hard on the heels of a half-dozen more in the East Village, Chinatown, and Sunset Park, is Yuan Noodle. Occupying the former Biang! space on Second Avenue, it offers eight versions of mi fen, some traditional, some invented. Some are served dry and others with broth, for which there’s occasionally an extra charge.
The room reminded us of the way place looked during the Biang days, but with more wood and shelving and fewer whitewashed surfaces. The dining room is lit by hanging globes, with a bar in front and tables in the rear.
Our first two bowls of noodles there were nothing short of spectacular. Using a catalog of ingredients that seemed at least partly Southeast Asian, a stir-fry described as classic guilin mi fen ($10) featured sliced fatty beef, crisp pieces of skin-on pork belly, toasted soybeans that seemed almost like small peanuts, and pickled green long beans. Red chile flakes and cilantro added spice and savor, and the underlying noodles were plenty slippery, even without any broth.
The second bowl was a hot and sour beef mi fen ($14), which reminded my friends and me of the soup noodles at Taste of Guilin, a long-running café in a Sunset Park shopping center. But there were more chunks of beef in this version, and the broth was a little spicier, with dancing droplets of red chile oil.
While mi fen constitute the center panel of the fold-out menu, the two other panels offered some surprises. The place dabbles in dim sum, steaming pristine though thick-skinned shrimp har gow (three for $5.25), as well baked pork bao. The most unexpected offerings were the Chinese-American carryout classic, fried wontons ($5.55), and sesame-dotted pillows of glutinous rice stuffed with purple yam that oozed at the edges.
One section of the menu offers big plates of mainly proteins in the $18 to $23 range, including barbecue pork rib, General Tso’s chicken (another Chinese-American classic), shredded beef, and— the one we picked — crispy duck. A half bird was cut up in small pieces and treated like fried chicken, which seemed like a very good idea.