As the pandemic rages across the country, New York City’s status remains unsure, with more worries on the horizon. Yet new restaurants continue to open, braving challenges that might once have been considered insurmountable. The latest is Public Village on Essex Street just south of Hester, in a row of charming small cafes across the street from Seward Park, which is shady, filled with benches, and underutilized. It turns out to be a great place to take your carryout, since the restaurant doesn’t really possess the sidewalk frontage for an outdoor seating area.
Public Village is a Chinese restaurant with dishes that partly reflect contemporary tastes back in China, not unlike the cluster of Chinese restaurants south of Columbia University. A large proportion of its regular menu is Sichuan, via chef and co-owner Kiyomi Wang, who was born in the province.
Two less permanent menus tacked onto the regular one posted at the front door take a different approach. While one adds a few popular Sichuan dishes, like dan dan noodles and Sichuan dumplings, the other centers on the far northeastern region of Dongbei. It won’t surprise you to hear that another co-owner, Karen Song, hails from Shenyang, the largest city in Dongbei’s Liaoning province.
First, the special menus. A dish common in Dongbei, given the horror-movie name of chicken skeleton ($7) by the restaurant, proves to be a split carcass with fragments of poultry still adhering, cooked like fried chicken. The appearance, too, is a little daunting, but the flavor is scrumptious. It’s a delightful dish for gnawers — folks who like to take a piece of chicken down to the bare bones. (The same dish with a different name is served at Dongbei stalwart Auntie Guan’s Kitchen on West 14th Street, and the Dongbei restaurants of Flushing.)
There’s also a more commonplace dish of fried chicken strips, and, continuing with the chicken theme, a tangle of poached chicken feet dressed with a vinegary chile sauce, providing a prodigious pucker and burn. One of the best things on the menu is called grill chilled noodle wrap ($10), which turns out to be a variation on jiang bing, the preeminent street snack of Beijing. This crepe arrives stuffed with scrambled egg and a crunchy cracker, and also cucumber, sprouts, and sesame seeds.
But here things get even more interesting, as cheese and a hot dog (described on the menu as a “chicken sausage”) is added to the inside, and the bing is chopped into pieces. Then it’s squirted with Sichuan mayo, making it about the goopiest thing I’ve ever tasted. And the fact that the wrap is served cold makes it perfect summer fare, so good I awarded it Dish of the Week status recently. Don’t forget to wash it down with the restaurant’s plum juice, which is cooling and not too sweet.
The bedrock of the menu, though, is a series of appetizers and noodles in a Sichuan vein. Most arresting is wan za ($15), green spinach noodles that can be had with or without soup, with the latter preferred. In three broad bands, ground pork, spinach, and (surprise!) yellow split peas cooked to crumbly perfection sprawl across the noodles. This dish originated in the city-state of Chongqing, though the yellow split peas make it seem almost Indian.
There are eight more noodle dishes, including a couple of vegetarian choices featuring mung bean thread and more of those spinach noodles. The apps include the usual plate of crushed Persian cucumbers with enough garlic to blow the top of your head off; a collection of Sichuan dumplings, slicked with chile oil and dried red chiles, that could be a full meal in itself; and salads of crunchy lotus root and bean curd skin, looking like gnarled pavement if streets were made of noodles.
Even though alcohol is not currently available, what might be considered bar snacks are present. One is a beef jerky ($10) that comes heat-sealed in a plastic bag, so bring a scissors or a knife. Slightly sweet and fibrous tendrils of meat provide a good chew, and go down agreeably with a mug of beer. They are already prepared and ready to go, so consider grabbing a bag as a snack on the way to a favorite Lower East Side bar. 23 Essex Street, between Canal and Hester streets, Lower East Side