The American classic that is the French Dip was born 110 years ago in Los Angeles. The origin stories of the sandwich are plentiful and, naturally, apocryphal. One version posits that a counter worker accidentally dropped a roast beef sandwich into pan drippings, picked up the soggy affair with his bare hands (yikes!), and served it to a municipal worker who couldn’t have been happier. Another version suggests the saucy dip was an effort to placate a customer complaining about stale bread. And yet a third postulates the wet sandwich was an effort to accommodate a guest with sore gums (quite a visual!).
The origin story of the dip-friendly JB Melt at the Midtown location of Little Tong, by contrast, is more definite. It was born in Manhattan earlier this year; after shift at the East Village location of Little Tong Noodle Shop, as chef-owner Simone Tong explained via email, the kitchen tossed some soft beef shank and cheese curds onto a scallion pancake. Staffers loved it and decided, correctly, to pair it with a cup of the shop’s chicken broth for dipping and sipping.
The creation is available for $13 at Little Tong’s new counter service location in Midtown. Like most everything at this duo of restaurants, which specialize in the slippery rice noodles of China’s Yunnan province, the JB Melt is quite good — and primed to be a future American classic.
Tong tells me the dish resembles the guokui of her native Chengdu, where street vendors stuff flatbreads with spicy-numbing meat and fry them in oil. The JB Melt, however, takes its name from the Chinese jiabing, as it’s more of a wrap, with the wonderfully greasy pancakes folded around five spice-braised beef, milky curds, and spicy mayo. It looks like the latest special from Taco Bell.
The slowly cooked shank boasts a no-nonsense beefiness, a wallop of cinnamon and star anise, and a whisper of fresh cilantro on the finish. The scallion pancake adds a nourishing starchiness, while the fresh cheese does the opposite, cleansing the palate of all the richness. The cup of broth is supremely concentrated; it smells of chicken as powerfully as gorgonzola smells of funk.
What does the chicken broth add to a dish that doesn’t need any more lubrication or softening? Even more savoriness and aroma. The side functions as much as dunking agent as it does something to sip on, to further warm one’s insides. Really, there’s nothing that’s not fatty in the melt. In that sense, the dish recalls the awesomely carnivorous mid-aughts, heady with meats and light on vegetables (think: early Momofuku or the Breslin).
To be fair, the melt also comes with a side of cabbage. Do with you will with that greenery. I’m here for the calories. Little Tong’s JB Melt is a BUY. May our progeny all be eating them 110 years from now.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).