For decades, the rice noodles of southwestern China have been the neglected stepchild of the noodle family. While the New York City public has happily wolfed down haystacks of chow fun, lo mein, mung bean vermicelli, peel noodles, liangpi, and hand-pulled noodles, the long and sinuous rice noodles associated with places like Yunnan and Guilin have waited on the sidelines. Yes, the pho of Vietnam, a related rice noodle, has long been popular here. But beginning about a year ago, Chinese rice noodles began to flower in Sunset Park, the East Village, Flushing, Greenwich Village, and Chinatown, so that now they constitute one of the city’s fastest-growing genres of Chinese food.
What is the virtue of rice noodles? Usually shaped like spaghetti and of varying density, thickness, and tensile strength, they tend to be pale, wobbly, and bland, but these very qualities are virtues in the way they’re used. In Guangxi, for example, where chile oil and chile flakes are often incorporated into sauces and soups, rice noodles form the perfect backdrop for spicy food. In Yunnan, famous for its mushrooms, these and other vegetables and meat products marry well with rice noodles’ subtlety.
Here are some rice noodle shops you can visit today.
Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle
One of the most famous rice noodle dishes in all of China is something called crossing the bridge noodles, which has a backstory involving a cantankerous scholar on an island, his accommodating wife, and an island reached only by a bridge. In practice, it is a collection of raw materials associated with Yunnan that are tossed in the hot broth at the last minute, including shaved pork, bean curd skin, kernel corn, a raw egg, pickled mustard greens, and Spam, cooking as you watch. Many variations are available here, some fiery hot, via sibling owners Tara and Yong Ting Chen, who franchised this chain from China. 705 59th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Sunset Park
Much of the rice noodle action has occurred in the East Village, though it began in Sunset Park. It was inevitable that the phenomenon should also spring up in Chinatown, and without much delay it did on a non-touristy corner beneath the Manhattan Bridge. In Yunnan fashion, the slippery white noodles are served in communal hot pots, most designed along the lines of crossing the bridge, but with lots of optional ingredients, which can be purchased by the item. The broth here is especially labored over, and there are lots of appetizers of a modern Chinese sort. 51 Division St., at Market Street, Chinatown
This East Village noodle shop, which took over the Biang! space in the summer of 2017, offers Guilin-style mi fen in a series of eight renditions, some with broth, some dry. Our favorite is hot and sour beef mi fen, which reminds you of the proximity of Guangxi to Vietnam. Its wealth of sliced brisket, pickled long beans, and spicy tart broth partly resembles Vietnamese bun bo Hue. The so-called classic bowl adds crisp pork belly to the same sliced beef, as well as fried soybeans. Also, don’t miss the fried duck. All dishes come from owner Jacob Ding’s family recipes. 157 Second Ave., between Ninth and 10th streets, East Village
Guizhou Huaxi-Wang Noodles
The cuisine of Guizhou, a mountainous province in southwestern China, has much in common with Sichuan cuisine, only its balance of flavors is shifted toward the tart. A well-known aphorism is, “Without eating a sour dish for three days, people will stagger with weak legs.” Both wheat and rice noodles are favored, and blood is often added to sour broths. The soup shown, from the Huaxi-Wang Noodle stall in the New York Food Court, is “red sour beef vermicelli,” which incorporates purple pickled radishes and a lake of chile oil. The shop run by a family from Huaxi, a city in Guizhou, reportedly sells hundreds of bowls daily. 133-35 Roosevelt Ave., between Prince Street and College Point Boulevard, Flushing
Helmed by WD-50 alumna Simone Tong, this spot offers the mixian noodles of Yunnan with inventive variations and specials featuring luxury ingredients, but with plenty of traditional flourishes, too. A favorite is the grandma chicken mixian, which uses chicken confit, black sesame garlic oil, pickles, fermented chile, and a scatter of edible blossoms to good effect. Another bowl transfers the flavors of dan dan mian to a mixian context, and there are plenty of appetizers and side dishes to fill out your meal. 177 First Ave., at 11th Street, East Village
The Rice Noodle
Owner Yao Tang hails from Kunming, Yunnan, 200 miles from the Burmese border, and his noodles are like those he ate as a kid. Six bowls are available, plus a few specials each day, incorporating sliced beef, and ground and sliced pork. Two of the noodles come without broth, and the rest with it. The choice called simply beef soup is the subtlest, shingled with slices of brisket, while the one called Mrs. Tang’s is dry and splotched with sriracha (this one has wheat noodles). A recent special featured beef, chopped tomatoes, and bok choy. To ramp up the spiciness, spoon in the sesame-flecked chile oil from the metal caddy on the table. 190 Bleecker St., between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village
South of the Clouds
Earlier this year, Liheng Geng, son of the owner of Yun Nan Flavour Garden in Sunset Park, opened the poetically named South of the Clouds (really, an English translation of “Yunnan”). It was more beautifully decorated than almost any other noodle parlor, with dramatic backlit mountains trailing across the walls, and was an immediate hit, especially among Chinese students at nearby NYU. Assembled tableside, crossing the bridge noodles are the thing to get, boasting two meats, fish, and chicken. Pour on the chile oil! 16 W. Eighth St., between MacDougal Street and Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village
Yun Nan Flavour Garden
This is where it all started, from chef-owner Side Geng. At one time it was the only real Yunnan restaurant in the city, successor to an even smaller place called Yun Nan Flavour Snack on 49th Street, where just a handful of rice noodle dishes were offered. At the newer place, founded in 2014, crossing the bridge noodles are front and center (with black chicken among the ingredients) but two dozen other dry and soupy noodle dishes are available. Some feature crispy pig intestines, pork stew, and sliced beef, plus there’s a roster of snacks and appetizers. 5121 Eighth Ave., between 51st and 52nd streets, Sunset Park
Taste of Guilin
Ensconced in the Fei Long Market in a storefront with a separate entrance, Taste of Guilin showcases the mi fen rice noodles of Guilin, where chef-owner Peter Qin and his family used to run a restaurant before moving to the U.S. The southern Chinese city in the Guangxi province is known for its limestone karst hills and scenic lakes. The pork belly noodles come in a bowl with broth on the side, flavored with assorted pickled vegetables, chile flakes, cilantro, and scallions, and garnished with roasted peanuts. Crunch, crunch. 6307 Eighth Ave., between 63rd and 64th streets, Sunset Park