There's an ancient Chinese legend that chef Simone Tong describes as both a love story and a tale of individual ambition.
The story begins on a small island in the Yunnan province in southwestern China, where a scholar is hard at work studying for his imperial exams. Each day, his wife travels to the lake to bring him food, a lengthy trek that involves the crossing of a bridge onto the island. However, she finds that the soup grows cold and the noodles become soggy along the route, leaving her hungry husband with a less-than-appetizing meal.
The wife searches for a solution and discovers that adding a layer of chicken fat over the broth will insulate it, maintaining the correct temperature for a much longer duration. To keep the meal from getting soggy, she begins to carry the broth separate from the noodles and the rest of the ingredients, combining the dish's components only when her husband is ready to eat his lunch. Soon, the wife's clever process emerges as a proven method, and when the scholar eventually passes his exams, he credits his wife's noodles for allowing him to achieve his goals.
Legend has it that the soup came to be named in honor of the long journey that the wife made for her husband each day. Now, guoqiao mixian, or crossing-the-bridge noodles, is perhaps the most recognized dish within all of Yunnan cuisine, or as Tong describes it to me, a "poster child" for menus inspired by the region.
When Tong opened Little Tong Noodle Shop in New York City's East Village last March, she wanted her 28-seat restaurant to properly introduce the city to the flavors of the Yunnan province, broadening people's perceptions of what Chinese food could be. In particular, she focused the menu around a certain type of rice noodle called mixian, which is extremely popular in Yunnan but relatively unexplored within the United States. Mixian noodles are shaped similarly to spaghetti, and though they can be served in several different ways, they're typically accompanied by meat, vegetables, and a wide variety of condiments.
All of the offerings at Little Tong demonstrate a sense of respect for the traditions of Yunnanese cooking, but Tong adds her own culinary spin and local ingredients to the dishes, rather than limiting herself to any strict guidelines. And because the region's cuisine is so reflective of the diversity of the many ethnic groups that call the province home, any quest for "authenticity" would end up being, well, inauthentic.
The resulting fare embraces the Yunnan province while also remaining true to Tong's personal tastes and interests as a chef. However, the restaurant's regular menu doesn't include any variations on crossing-the-bridge noodles, and those familiar with the food of the region would sometimes comment on the dish's absence.
"When we first opened this restaurant, everyone that loves mixian would ask us how come we don't serve [guoqiao mixian]," said Tong. "But I've always tried to reserve it to special moments. And I think that December of 2017 crossing over to 2018 will be special enough for us to make our own version of crossing-the-bridge."
The LT Bridge Crossing Mixian first appeared on the restaurant's menu at the start of December, and Tong plans to continue offering it into early January before replacing it with another seasonal special. By positioning the bowl as a transitional meal between two calendar years, Tong added another meaning to its already symbolic name. As diners experience the flavors of the broth and its toppings, they might also find themselves experiencing the sensation of crossing a metaphorical bridge from 2017 into the new year.
The design of Little Tong's crossing-the-bridge noodles honors the upcoming year numerically in a number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious tribute is that the dish costs $20.18. Taking the theme a step further, Little Tong serves a maximum of only 20 bowls per day, and each bowl consists of 18 different ingredients.
While 18 ingredients might sound overwhelming, every single one is carefully chosen with respect to the complexities that it can add to the soup's overall taste and the current season. In their rendition, Little Tong adds a twist to some of the more classic toppings that one could expect to find in the Yunnanese dish, such as choosing prosciutto and sirloin for the pork and beef elements. The sea is just as thoroughly represented as the land, in the form of surf clam, roe, arctic char, scallops, and shrimp.
As for Tong's favorite ingredient? She has two: goji berries and wood ear.
A single menu item involving so many different parts is a bit of a shift from Little Tong's usual style. "At Little Tong, we try to showcase single ingredients, that they are tasty by themselves or just with two garnishes," Tong said. She explained that the high ingredient count is at least partially responsible for the daily limit, as the preparation time for the crossing-the-bridge noodles is longer than that of other menu items.
For Tong, the inclusion of all of these components creates more of a festive mood surrounding the dish. "This one is definitely an extravagant display, almost like a celebration in a bowl, just to make people excited about December and crossing over into the new year," she said.
The restaurant's process of serving the dish calls back to the ancient origin story of the scholar and his wife. The broth is transported to the table in a cast iron teapot, separate from the noodles and the toppings. It's then poured into the bowl in front of the customer, the final steps of the cooking process occurring outside of the kitchen.
But although the defining factor of separation is present, Tong explained that Little Tong's exact method of delivery lies outside the norm. At other mixian restaurants, customers are typically given a bowl of hot broth, while all of the toppings are spread out in smaller dishes for the customer or an attendant to add to the bowl. "We just want to do it the other way," Tong said.
Every aspect of the experience is deliberate, down to the dishware itself. As soon as Tong saw the blue-and-white koi designs, she knew that she needed them for the crossing-the-bridge noodles. It's another part of the meal based on an ancient Chinese tale. According to legend, a large school of koi fish swam upstream in a river and reached a waterfall. While many of the koi turned back, several attempted to jump to the top of the waterfall. As they continually failed in their mission, local demons began to mock them.
Hundreds of years passed, and one koi managed to find its way to the top. Impressed by the koi's perseverance, the gods turned it into a golden dragon.
Chef Simone Tong demonstrated tremendous determination on the journey that led her to open Little Tong, and any comparison to the legend of the koi who conquered the waterfall begins to write itself.
In the summer before her senior year of college, Tong worked in her mother's restaurant as a translator for French chef, and it was there that she began to realize her desire to become a chef herself. Upon returning to college, she started to pursue cooking by hosting dinner parties for her friends.
An episode of Daniel Boulud's culinary show, "After Hours with Daniel," inspired her to take the next major step in her career path. The particular episode featured Chef Wylie Dufresne's wd~50, and Tong was amazed by the restaurant's seamless blending of science and art. She enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City with the goal of working wd~50 in mind. Upon graduating, Tong ended up achieving her dream of working at wd~50 and had the opportunity to learn directly from Dufresne. She also interned under one of her favorite sushi chefs, Masato Shimizu, at 15 East.
"And then, I traveled around Europe and Asia to get inspiration and taste different ingredients and dishes," said Tong. Through those travels, she had a realization that Chinese cuisine was underrepresented in the western world, despite its rich history. So in 2016, Tong devoted three months to exploring and researching the Yunnan province.
With the opening of Little Tong Noodle Shop, Tong was able to integrate all of her unique life experiences into her first restaurant, sharing her heartfelt passions for Yunnan cuisine and the restaurant business in general with all who visit. "Cooking food... it's like creating happiness, understanding ingredients... it's like science and art," Tong explained of her love for the industry.
Little Tong has already managed to stand out in a city where countless other restaurants struggle to do so. As it should, the combination of a novel concept with unmistakable culinary talent has attracted a lot of attention. Both the New York Times and Eater included the noodle shop on their lists of New York City's top restaurants in 2017. "The main event is mixian, the long, slender, elusively slippery rice noodle; their mild flavor defers to the fireworks of Ms. Tong’s broths," wrote restaurant critic Pete Wells in his review for the New York Times.
If you're hoping to try the LT Bridge Crossing Mixian, there's still time to pay Little Tong a visit before the dish disappears from the menu. But since the restaurant serves only 20 of the bowls each day, it's best to get there early before the maximum number is reached. And yes, they've been hitting that mark before closing time. But don't stress too much. Should you miss your chance to order crossing-the-bridge noodles, you're sure to still wind up with a tasty bowl of mixian.
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