It’s not exactly shocking that death, life’s great inconvenience, seldom appears in restaurant reviews. But food traditions tied to mourning span generations, and the globe; after all, eating and dying are about as universal as human experiences get. New Orleanians console themselves with jambalaya, the American Midwest has its casseroles, and the Amish make something called funeral pie. In China’s southwestern Yunnan province, a diverse area bordering Southeast Asia and Tibet, ghost chicken is one such dish. The bracing chilled poultry salad is classically made from birds ceremonially cooked by the Dai people in honor of their deceased. As with all recipes too tasty for their own good, it’s become a popular staple independent of the ritual, which is why you can now find it at one of the city’s hottest new slurp joints.
In the back of Little Tong, her slender, three-month-old Yunnan-inspired East Village noodle shop, Simone Tong starts her ghost chicken ($7) with an overnight salt brine. The crafty, unconventional extra step makes for easier shredding once poached and ensures that the meat stays velvety. The ingredients she uses — homemade chile sauce, ginger, and especially fresh herbs and citrus juice — are mostly classic, indicative of the region’s proximity to Laos and Vietnam. Pickled red onions and mustard seeds are thrown in the mix before the chicken is crowned with a thicket of basil, minty shiso leaf, cilantro, and rau ram, another type of coriander with a peppery kick. A moshpit of riotous flavors crammed into a very small amount of space, it’s served in the center of a shallow, wide-rimmed glass bowl and looks like the kind of thing you’d encounter on a multicourse tasting menu. Think of it as Thai larb’s smart-alecky cousin, but with a presentation that speaks to the chef’s time spent working for modernist culinary icon Wylie Dufresne at wd~50 and Alder.
The under-$10 appetizer is a highlight of the menu’s “little eats” section (basically, everything that isn’t noodles), which also includes salads ($4–$9) of sweet and spicy pickles in sesame oil, bitter chicory leaves tossed with beef tendon and pineapple, and crisp Chinese broccoli under a blizzard of smoked egg yolk shavings. Those same shavings are folded into an aioli for a righteous beef tartare ($13) mixed with pickled carrots and made with aged sirloin, the fat of which is whipped into spiced “Sichuan butter” meant for spreading onto bubbled and flaky scallion pancakes. Then there are the delicate, slippery wonton skins, packed with ground pork and bathed in rugged chile vinaigrette ($7). Vegetarians are in luck, too. Cooked-down wild lamb’s-quarters, an edible weed, serve as the foundation for he bao dan ($5), the straightforward but satisfying bowl of greens anchored by a runny fried egg, while a stir-fry of charred white asparagus — showered with peanuts and vibrant purple grilled chive flowers — showcases greenmarket bounty with dexterous style.
That eye for detail extends to Tong’s rice noodles, the shop’s main draw. It took her 25 tries to settle on the perfect mixian, Yunnan’s famed fermented noodles, which are as stringy as spaghetti and daintier than those used for pho. You may have encountered them before in Flushing or Sunset Park. Tong, who grew up eating mixian near their source in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, is spreading the love in her own special way. Spend some time with her menu and it’s easy to see why such an accomplished chef chose to open a restaurant centered on this humble staple, and why they’re consumed in China at all times of day.
Considering that a bowl of ramen in this town can cost upwards of $20, Little Tong — which employs a no-tipping policy — charges a fairly wallet-friendly $14–$15 for its standard mixian. And while she does tweezer the occasional flower onto some of the dishes, Tong maintains that her inspiration is grounded in home-cooked meals and the comfort she found in these noodles as an expat in New York. To that end, there’s real schmaltzy depth in the grandma chicken mixian, which mingles chicken thigh confit, savory eggs cured in Yunnan’s pu-erh tea, and splashes of shimmery black-sesame garlic oil. Her dan dan, a notorious broth-free Sichuan recipe, is just as impressive, festooned with a generous helping of crushed peanuts and squiggles of chile and green-peppercorn oils to go with a homespun pork ragù that’s a chunky blend of pickled mustard greens and pork shoulder and belly. If “homey” isn’t your thing, treat those fancy taste buds to pork stock loaded with minced belly and mushrooms or five-spice tofu in an earthy vegetable broth, both of which come in lovely copper pots. In every instance, the bouncy noodles add a subtle tang while absorbing each bowl’s unique mélange of flavors.
Some mixian are served cold and better for it, and it’s these I’ll be coming back to when temperatures rise, even though there’s ample refreshment to be found in glasses of pulpy unfiltered sake and bottles of Wolffer cider from Long Island; in the wines, which for simplicity’s sake are limited to sole selections of white, rosé, and red for $48 per bottle or $10 by the glass; and in the $9 fruit sorbets doled out for dessert in delightful, unexpected flavors like coconut–green peppercorn. But noodles remain the stars of the show — one cold, shrimp-studded number channels Banna, Yunnan’s southernmost prefecture, with a lightly smoked tomato-based shellfish broth that’s somehow richer unheated. And while it may not possess the poignant origins of ghost chicken, the $16 special of laoya duck mixian is a marvel of avian cookery. The nod to Yiliang roast duck, a smokier relative of the famed Peking preparation, “pays homage to the Chinese emotional connection to duck,” Tong says. With its corn-soybean succotash, sour black vinegar, and tender slices of aged bird nesting in a chilled roast duck bone broth poured tableside, you’ll likely have an emotional connection to it, too.