Rebranding tradition

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Chinese and Chinese-American chefs fuse eclecticism with authenticity


  • Simone Tong, right, owner and chef of the East Village Yunnanese noodle bar, Little Tong, notes the lack of diversity of Chinese cuisines in the city. Photo: Claire Wang

  • Eric Sze (left), started The Tang, an East Village noodle bar. A generation of Chinese-American cooks are expanding Chinese cuisine's parameters, he said. Photo: Claire Wang

Little Tong, among the newest additions to East Village’s eclectic culinary scene, bears more resemblance to a trendy brunch spot than a Chinese noodle shop.

Taking over an almost perfectly rectangular space on the corner of First Avenue and 11th Street, it can accommodate just 28 customers. Enclosed by chocolate brown bricks on one side and a wooden, sand-colored slat-wall panel on the other, the restaurant’s contemporary interior exudes, paradoxically, an edgy rusticity. Two dishes lay atop a countertop by the kitchen: the beef tartare with a slice of scallion pancake, arranged like guacamole and chips in a wooden dipping bowl, and the ghost chicken, an extravaganza of leaves and spices burrowed in the center of a hat-shaped glass plate.

Meticulous plating and polished aesthetics are endemic to Lower Manhattan’s Western diners but, until recently, have rarely been adopted by Chinese cooks. In New York, Los Angeles and other big cities in the U.S., the stereotype that Chinese food is cheap, convenient and casual is so ingrained that many believe the alternative to be inauthentic. In the past year, half a dozen contemporary Chinese restaurants emerged in neighborhoods outside of Chinatown, offering innovative dishes that fuse authenticity with elegance.

Chef Simone Tong, alum of Michelin-starred restaurant wd-50, drew from her extensive travels to Yunnan to recreate the mixian, the Chinese province’s famous slick rice noodle. Since opening shop at the end of March, Tong’s crafty interpretations of Yunnan comfort food have been featured on food websites such as Eater and Grub Street. Her eye-catching mixian dishes, served with herbs and fermented vegetables in a spicy pork broth, reflect the history and culture of specific regions she visited.

“I want to transport the memories of my travels back to New York,” Tong said, who noted the lack of diversity of Chinese cuisines in the city. “There are so many flavors in China that you can’t find here.”

Large-scale migrations from Hong Kong and Fuzhou in the mid-20th century brought to New York’s Chinatown a multitude of inexpensive dim sum parlors, dumpling houses and hand-pulled noodle shops that would come to define overseas Chinese cuisine. Doyers Street’s Nam Wah Tea Parlor, the city’s first dim sum bar, once hosted members of the violent Tong Gangs in the 1930s. More diversity came through at the dawn of the aughts, when the likes of Joe’s Shanghai spearheaded the craze for the diminutive soup dumplings, and Xi’an Famous Foods made chili oil street food a sweat-inducing sensation. Even as flavors diversified, though, Chinese cuisine’s reputation as the perennially low-cost option persisted.

Refined, credit card-taking Chinese restaurants have always quietly coexisted alongside their more common cash-only counterparts. Mr. Chow, a luscious, blindingly white Midtown East eatery featuring Champagne chillers and tuxedoed waiters, has been serving $38 walnut chickens since 1979. Near the Hudson in the West Village, RedFarm, an inventive dim sum bar established in 2011, combines $20 lobster dumplings with Oktoberfest aesthetic.

Places like Little Tong straddle the infrequently exploited space between the decrepit, often family-run diners in Chinatown and the extravagant, fine-dining variety like Mr. Chow and RedFarm. While most Chinatown shops sell noodles for less than $10, her mixian dishes start at $14. “The idea that Chinese food is only cheap is a misconception that we need to change,” Tong said. “We want to give you another option to tell you that Chinese food is not all cheap, just like how Japanese food is not just sushi, or American food is just burgers and fries.”

The misconception Tong mentioned seems to exist only in western countries. “In China, you have the hole-in-the-walls and the banquet style restaurants,” said Eric Sze, recent NYU alum and owner of The Tang, another fledgling East Village noodle bar located just a few blocks from Little Tong. “In America, you only get the cheap, take-out variety. A generation of Chinese-American cooks came together and decided to change that.”

Unlike its Yunnanese neighbor, Sze’s restaurant skirts categorization. At the sleek First Avenue storefront, which debuted in July, customers can find seared short ribs marinated in lip-numbing Szechuan pepper, the westernized pork-belly wrap, and the ZJM (zhang jian mian), the wickedly meaty fried sauce noodle originating from Beijing. Similar to those at Little Tong, The Tang’s noodles range from $12 to $15.

To Sze, whose idols are Mission Chinese’s Danny Bowien and Momofuku’s David Chang, preserving the flavors of each region is as important as exercising his own vision as a cook. Though The Tang serves mostly Chinese comfort food, he said, “Nothing here is what your grandma makes at home.” In concocting the Hu noodle, for example, Sze blended ground pork with fermented chickpea puree to achieve a miso-like flavor. The sesame tofu, a bestseller, is drenched in a custard sauce infused with Parmesan cheese. “We want to show New Yorkers that you can freestyle Chinese food while still keeping it authentic,” he said.

The desire to modernize and elevate popular homemade meals has been spreading across Lower Manhattan. Pinch Chinese, a Taipei-based dumpling house that opened up in SoHo this February, offers an original, palate-cleansing way to enjoy familiar, heavy dishes. “We want to give our the most pleasant dining experience,” said owner Sean Tang, who refers to his restaurant as regionally “agnostic.” At Pinch, he said, dim sum dishes – appetizers like the marinated cucumbers and cumin ribs – always start a meal, but will never be directly followed by the spicy Szechuanese dishes like ma po tofu.

The shift toward more complex recipes and more thoughtful serving styles reflects the rising standards of restaurants in China, said Julia Dong, communications rep of Hao Noodle and Tea, a Sichuanese chain that launched its West Village location in June. With popular stores in Beijing and Shanghai, Hao Noodle’s elevated price range, which can hit $30 to $50 per person, underscores the changing attitude toward Chinese dining.

“As more and more Chinese are traveling to New York, and more Chinese emigrated to New York and settled here,” Li said, “their standard and need for more refined Chinese food has raised the bar high.”

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