clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Bowls of soup, corn kernels, green beans, and pork belly.
Four colorful and unique dishes from China Xiang.

Filed under:

For Spicy Food Lovers, a Reason to Venture to the Edge of Times Square

China Xiang opened six years ago, a harbinger of a burgeoning Chinese food corridor

Named after a river that’s a Yangtze tributary, China Xiang, at 360 W. 42nd Street, east of Ninth Avenue, specializes in the cuisine of Hunan. When I entered with three friends at 7 p.m. on a recent Sunday evening, the dining room that seats 60 or so, anchored by mural of the Xian River, was half empty but filled up as the evening progressed. The interior looks like a 1960s diner with bare grayish-brown brick, stained-wood accents, Jetsons-like light fixtures, and other period details. A fluorescent chalkboard lists specials only in Chinese.

Chinese restaurants, some offering dim sum and noodles, others specializing in regional cuisines, have been opening in droves just west of Times Square over the last few years. Six years ago China Xiang opened and seemed slightly out of place among the cheesesteak shops, diners, dive bars, and fast-food burger joints. Open past midnight seven days, it gradually found its constituency in this Hell’s Kitchen crossroads.

A black storefront with red lettering.
Hell’s Kitchen’s China Xiang is nominally a Hunan restaurant.
An well lit interior with bare brick walls and hanging lamps.
The interior is diner-like.

The restaurant’s menu, like that of the Hunan province, mounts dishes often said to be hotter than Sichuan fare, though it doesn’t use Sichuan peppercorns and rarely uses chile oil. Rather, the effects are achieved via green chiles, dried red chiles, and pickled chiles. Indeed, ingredients preserved by pickling, drying, fermenting, and smoking are an important aspect of Hunan cuisine.

We put these principles to the test by ordering smoked pork with dried turnips ($22). It was even more magnificent than we’d hoped: bits of pork belly almost like American bacon, only smokier and chewier, playing hide-and-seek with tendrils of dried daikon. There were green chiles, leeks, and fermented black beans, too, creating a complex flavor combination bursting with umami. Pickled red chiles provided further color and heat. We wiped sweat from our brows and proceeded.

A gritty stir fry with swatches of green and brown.
Smoked pork and dried turnips.

We could barely pull ourselves away from the farmhouse pork, smoky pork belly that reminded us of Texas barbecue, to address the tureen of soup that next arrived in a cloud of fragrant steam. It boasted an emulsified broth as pale as a sheet of recycled paper. Braised fish with pickled mustard greens and mushrooms ($29) was easily enough for four to eat as much as they wanted, with a winning sour taste propelled by the vinegar-preserved mustard greens. Enoki mushrooms in an assortment of sizes also delighted us with their slipperiness and a surfeit of tilapia more than fed the table.

A bowl of yellow soup with a big mushroom rising up.
An individual serving of braised fish with pickled mustard greens and mushrooms.
A white bowl with encrusted yellow kernels.
Baked corn with salted egg sauce.

Everything we tried had its own level of heat, from middling to outright spicy. Green beans Hunan style ($18) was the mildest order of the night, the vegetable wrinkled like fingers after a half-hour in the bath, retaining its color and flavor, intensified with swatches of lean pork. Another tongue-soothing dish was baked corn with salted egg sauce ($19). It arrived heaped in a platter like something found on an Iowa farm table, bright yellow kernels made even yellower with crumbly fermented egg yolk, which imparted a salty and buttery taste. The recipe may have originated in Yunnan.

Sauteed farm chicken with spring ginger ($33) was the hardest dish to eat but perhaps the most interesting. The pungent gingery taste of the chicken tidbits was unforgettable, but the bird had been hacked up into the smallest of pieces, which resulted in more flavor from the bones. It’s a dish for gnawers who are rewarded for effort.

Small brownish fragments of chicken in a blue Delft bowl.
Farm chicken with fresh ginger.

It’s a shame the beers are $9 apiece because several bottles would be my choice to wash this very flavorful food down. In addition to white rice, we ordered two rounds of the excellent scallion pancakes ($7), which arrived paler than usual and hot from the fat, and proved perfect for mopping up the sauces that lingered in the bowls.

China Xiang also offers an exhaustive list of 20 types of dim sum, more than most of the new Chinese restaurants in the area — including such arcana as pig custard buns, duck dumplings, and abalone siu mai. But really, for dinner in a Hunan restaurant wouldn’t you rather stick to the spicier stuff?

China Xiang

360 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, NY 10036 (212) 967-6088
NYC Restaurant Closings

The East Village Loses One of Its Only Nigerian Restaurants — And More Closings

NYC Pop-Up Restaurants

Speed Dating Over Tiny Cakes — And More Food Pop-Ups

Vietnamese Peanut Butter Coffee to Start Your Weekend