Slowly but surely, the mixian noodles of Yunnan are gaining popularity in New York. These long, white, floppy rice noodles have long been served at Yun Nan Flavour Garden in Sunset Park, and more recently at Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle in the same neighborhood, the latter name checking Yunnan’s most famous dish. The phenomenon invaded the East Village at Little Tong, and Chinatown at Deng Ji. Now, Yun Nan Flavour Garden is extending its reach to Manhattan: Liheng Geng, the son of Yun Nan Flavour Garden’s owner, has opened South of the Clouds at 16 West 8th St., near 5th Avenue, in Greenwich Village, right off the NYU campus.
The build-out of the narrow restaurant — poetically named for the English translation of “Yunnan” — is dramatic. Back-lit black mountains climb one wall, as if diners were caught in a canyon. Friezes and delft blue plates decorate the opposite wall, while beehive fixtures dangle from the ceiling like geometric halos. Tables along either wall provide the best seating; skip the angular counters at the rear, where it’s hard to maneuver and you’ll end up bumping into other diners.
From the rear kitchen, steaming bowls of noodles emerge borne by waitresses in black uniforms. The most popular is crossing the bridge noodles ($18), one of four hot and one cold noodle selections, all featuring mixian. I won’t bother repeating the story behind crossing the bridge noodles, which involves a scholar isolated on an island, his worried spouse, and a bowl of noodles that ought to be hotter. Google it.
The version served here begins with a big bowl of excellent broth in which goji berries peregrinate. On the same tray lies an array of raw ingredients that the waitress will toss one-by-one into the bowl: bean curd skin, quail egg, scallions, cilantro, bean sprouts, fish, pork, beef, and black chicken, said to have medicinal properties. She then disappears into the kitchen and re-emerges with a plate of silky white noodles. These mixian are slightly firmer than the others I’ve tried around town.
This bowl of soup ($18) is the best evocation available so far. Chile oil can be requested, and should be. My only complaint was that the broth was not quite hot enough to completely cook the added elements. This is probably only a matter of timing; when I visited with a friend, the place was slammed. Fulfilling all the orders for crossing the bridge noodles was clearly a challenge for the restaurant. The way the problem was solved in the fable — by flooding the broth with oil so that the heat was kept in — is apparently not an option in these fat-phobic times.
That evening a friend and I also enjoyed the “cold stir rice noodle (dry)” ($12), which is something like a richer dan dan noodles, made with minced pork, fermented bean paste, and crushed ginger and garlic in a sweet sauce. We actually liked it more than the crossing the bridge noodles. The next day we tried two more bowls: a soup with chopped tomatoes that featured dried beef and tons of noodles, but proved rather boring, and another bowl that combined mixian with ground pork, pickled mustard greens, and soft tofu, a spectacular combination in which the bean curd turned the ingredients into a semblance of pudding. It also left a tingle in the mouth from Sichuan peppercorn oil.
Apart from the main course noodles, there are brief lists of apps and desserts. When we visited the first time, the ghost chicken ($7) was already sold out, so cucumber salad ($5) was ordered, a sweeter version of the dish found on all northern Chinese and Sichuan menus these days. Better was something called pigs on a stick, an Asian answer to pigs in a blanket. Little tidbits of spicy pork were skewered on toothpicks and thrown helter skelter onto a plate.
On the second visit, the Yunnan ghost chicken was wonderful, shredded poultry in an herbal salad of cilantro and green onions. The carrot salad was great, too, reminiscent of the shredded carrots dressed with yellow sunflower oil found in Uzbek restaurants.
Desserts arrive on saucers, composed of very light and refreshing ingredients. Our choice was rosy cheeks ($7), which featured clear curlicues of silver ear fungus and a little wad of rose jelly, composed mainly of sweet small petals. The other three desserts were similarly composed and sized, making a refreshing end to a meal that is quite a bargain, especially given the care put into the food.