Little Tong wants you to fall in love with its rice noodles, known as mixian in Yunnan province, their place of origin. But don’t ignore the big draw at this diminutive Turtle Bay restaurant — as if you could: incendiary spice blends that make your mouth sting and eyes tear up the moment you plant your lips on the food.
Little Tong, which opened in mid-2018, is among the latest of the many lunch spots to land on East 53rd Street, making that strip one of Manhattan’s most diversified restaurant rows. It is also part of a groundswell of Chinese soup-and-noodle shops springing up across the city, which includes its parent restaurant of the same name, in the East Village.
Simone Tong, the chef and owner of both Little Tongs, was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Yunnan’s neighbor to the north. She learned her way around a kitchen in New York City before diving into Yunnanese cuisine during a three-month tour there in 2016.
Her place on 53rd has been fiercely crowded since New York magazine ran a lascivious photo of its “signature staple,” the JB Melt, back in August. The $9 sandwich is perfect, combining the great classic sandwich elements — tender meat, gooey cheese, crunchy toppings, a good salting and a healthy dose of chili and aromatic spices — on a folded, flaky pancake.
The pancake is a bit greasy, but hey. Inside, you find slivers of beef braised for hours in an aromatic liquid, crisp cucumber chips, globs of Beecher’s fresh cheese curds and sprigs of cilantro, finished with a tangy chili-mayo sauce.
The sandwich comes with a bowl of dipping juice, combining some of the braising liquid with chicken broth, and a side of marinated cabbage; neither adds much to the sandwich.
The other attractions here are the mixian bowls, of course, which come in ground pork, vegetarian and two chicken versions ($12 each). Some come in broth while others are served “dry” or splashed in sauces of rising heat levels.
A note on the wall explains that mixian noodles get their “delicious springy texture” from “a fermentation process like bread.” To be honest, it would be difficult for me to pick the mixian out of a lineup of rice-noodle varieties.
A helpful counterman described the Mala Chicken Mixian as “our hottest dish.” Shredded chicken is arrayed on noodles soaking in a chilled yet fiery broth. Swimming in the broth are chunks of cucumber, cabbage, shallot, scallion and jalapeño. A good dose of Sichuan pepper gives the dish its “male” — mouth-numbing — character. It smolders, tingles and brings on the flavor all at once.
Less intense is the Veggie Dan Dan Mixian, which has no trace of your typical dan dan sauce, based on finely ground peanuts or sesame paste. Instead it looks more like a plate of spaghetti bolognese. Its noodles are topped by a patchwork of hard-cooked duck-egg yolk, fermented mustard greens, tofu, chopped squash, mustard seeds and celery seed. The ingredients blend into a munchable mush as you eat.
To round out a meal, you can try a number of small plates ($2 to $9), including Bang Bang cucumber, garlic shrimp, funky house pickles, pea shoots and pork wontons. Beverages include tea and craft ginger ale. To temper the flames in your mouth, a pitcher of water stands to the right of the counter, with a stack of plastic cups.
There’s no table service; the place barely has room for its eight small tables, let alone a waiter. Adding to the congestion is the inevitable line between the front door and the counter, where customers place orders and return to pick them up. It gets a little crazy during the lunch rush, but most meals are taken to go, so you can usually get a seat without waiting. The wooden seats are backless but reasonably comfortable.
Little Tong Noodle Shop is open seven days a week from 11 a.m to 9:30 p.m. It is at 235 E. 53rd Street, between Second and Third Avenues; (929) 383-0465.