Simone Tong makes a phenomenal bowl of noodles. The Chinese-born chef has spent the last decade cooking her way through some of NYC's most inventive restaurants (most recently at wd~50 and Alder), and she recently struck out on her own as chef and part-owner of Little Tong Noodle Shop in New York's East Village. Little Tong is the restaurant she's always wanted: a narrow, panda-bedecked storefront serving killer mixian—skinny, slippery Yunnan-style rice noodles—in a constantly-rotating assortment of broths and bowls.
Summer's got to be a challenging time to have a noodle shop where the most popular dish is "grandma noodles," Yunnan-style chicken noodle soup, more or less, sitting in a hearty broth thick with garlic and sesame. But Tong's got it under control. She's been serving a cold smoked-tomato noodle broth she calls banna shrimp mixian, and no shade to grandma, but it might be the sleeper hit of the summer.
About the sauce, Tong explains, "Yunnan has these tomatoes called "tree tomatoes." They're very tart, almost like tomatillos—you can't eat them raw, but if you cook them with fermented chiles, coriander, mint, culantro, galangal, they turn into this amazing sauce. This is basically my interpretation of that sauce. It's not always cold—actually, people pretty much serve it hot, but I like it cold. I think serving it cold actually makes the intense flavors—crab paste, fish sauce, smoked tomatoes, fermented chilies—milder."
The assembly is easy: rice noodles get blanched, then chilled, then dropped in a bowl. The smoked tomato sauce (made and chilled) goes on top, then a flurry of brined-then-poached-then-tossed-in-citrus-zest shrimp. And then the toppings start coming fast and furious: a squirt of green herb sauce (a combo of culantro, mint, Thai basil and coconut milk), a drizzle of laksa oil (fresh rau ram leaves, dried, powdered, and infused into oil—what, you don't keep laksa oil around?), crispy dried shallots, fermented green chiles, and a flutter of edible flowers ("I'm a big fan of flowers because I think something that tastes so good should look good too.")
And then all that's left is to eat. "We eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I've been telling everyone I'm on a diet lately. I've been eating too many of these rice noodles."