After casting my ballot in Tuesday’s presidential election, I decided that my first meal of the day — and perhaps of a new political era — would be from Chongqing Xiao Mian, one of the last restaurants I visited before the shutdown in March. The venue’s practical title is a direct advertisement for its chief speciality: “little noodles,” often in soup, from the Southwestern Chinese city of the same name. In its small kitchen, cooks toss a fistful of white xiao mian in a shallow pool of crimson broth, which patrons slurp with a wooden ladle and a pair of chopsticks. Consume in full and your insides will glow.
This is the soup that kept me toasty as our city teetered on the edge of its first season of COVID-19, and I reckon it’ll do so again now that we’re entering our second pandemic winter.
Yes, it’s soup weather in New York, this week’s balmy spell notwithstanding. The leaves are golden and crinkly. There’s a crispness in the air. And the human body, for reasons both physical and mental, requires warmth as the daylight hours wane. The truth of the matter is that it’s always soup weather in Hell’s Kitchen, which has one of the city’s most diverse ramen scenes — we have tonkotsu, tori paitan, mazamen, iekei, kogashi, spicy miso, tantanmen, and more — with serious lines at select venues even in the dead of summer.
Chinese xiao mian is in shorter supply on the west side, and quite frankly throughout the city; it hasn’t proliferated at the rate that, say, springy Yunnanese mixian recently has. The noodles are a traditional breakfast food in Chongqing, the hilly megalopolis that boasts a population of over 30 million (by comparison, New York has about 8.3 million residents). Street vendors there typically mix sesame oil, garlic, soy, black vinegar, Sichuan peppercorns, and chile oil into a broth that’s sometimes fortified with a bit of lard, then add wheat noodles.
The Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, which also goes by the name Chongqing Noodle House, has been serving soups in this style since it opened about four years ago. The owners expanded to the East Village in 2017, but shuttered that sophomore location last June, EV Grieve reported, leaving just the one at Ninth Avenue near 53rd Street. And while the narrow, takeout-focused venue was always small, things have reached a lilliputian level during the pandemic: There are just one or two outdoor tables for two. There is no indoor dining.
One can order the bowls with tripe and tendon, roast duck, streaky pork, or ground pork. My go-to is the mala pork ($11.75). Take a sip of the broth to understand the morning allure — though to be clear the venue doesn’t actually open until 11:00 a.m. Like Vietnamese pho, the soup is light and nimble, without any heavy fats. Fragrant cilantro brings a grassy punch — the kind they use is like cilantro to the power of 100 — while chile adds a bearable sting. The peppercorns, if they’re detectable, impart a fragrant, lemony bitterness and a low-level numbing buzz. The restrained flavors belie the soup’s bright red hue.
For noodles, patrons choose between two options. Xiao Mian’s default is a facet noodle that’s about as thin as soba. They’re wonderfully neutral and inhalable, exhibiting a tensile strength that’s firm but not too firm, just a whisper softer than al dente; they’re not nearly as stretchy or starchy as dan dan. They slurp up easily in ropy clusters, and sometimes a few knobs of sweet ground pork adhere to their sides. The alternate choice is a peel noodle, wider, knife-cut strands with the width of Cantonese shahe fen. This variety offers nourishing heft with a touch more chew. Regardless, each style of noodle doesn’t so much absorb the broth as it acts as a relief from it, allowing the palate to rest between spoonfuls of all the spice. Your happy stomach will hum like a well-tuned car engine afterwards. This is comfort food.
A new class of modern Sinosphere restaurants have been popping up around Manhattan over the past few years, due to a variety of factors including the burgeoning Chinese student population. Hell’s Kitchen has been the lucky beneficiary of this phenomenon, with the recent openings of spicy seafood spot Le Sia, bubble tea hangout Ho Ho Té, and international Taiwanese dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan. Chongqing Xiao Mian, to be clear, isn’t as splashy as those venues, which have the air of a newer Hell’s Kitchen — a neighborhood that increasingly feels shinier and slicker on certain blocks.
But just like those other fine East Asian spots, Chongqing Xiao Mian fits perfectly into my neighborhood — more so than our new Target store and luxury apartments — bringing something nourishing and affordable to a stretch of Ninth Avenue where a breadth of accessible culinary options has always been the chief draw.
So, you know what the deal is: I’m rating these mala xiao mian with pork a BUY. I’ll be back to sample the restaurant’s other specialty: mao cai, a Chengdu hotpot of sorts for one. Also consider trying xiao mian at the New World Mall in Flushing.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).