About 10 minutes from Flushing’s main drag, beyond the crowds and the food courts, is a restaurant quietly serving what may be the neighborhood’s best new bowl of noodles. A Xiang Mi Xian opened a few months ago on a strip of Bowne Street next door to a laundromat; its existence feels like an unintentional secret. When I stumbled across it, it had no website or any digital presence at all, really, and Google confuses the business with the space’s previous tenant, Beef Bar. (The situation is not helped by its SEO-proof English name: Asian Rice Noodles.) But the restaurant shouldn’t be a secret at all because of its Anhui ban mian.
What arrives on the table is a soup that’s rich and savory, filled with thick wheat noodles, the broth dyed bronze by the spices. (The kitchen is generous with star anise and takes a lighter hand with chile, so there’s only a touch of heat.) From the first sip, it’s clear that this is no purifying broth for a January cleanse: The bowl is packed with chunks of beef, a slab of braised tofu, some bok choy, and a whole egg. The highlight, though, is the meatball. It’s a little sweet and soft on the inside with a crispy exterior. (Extra meatballs can be added for a price; do this because you won’t want to share.)
The rest of the menu bops around China from Yunnan (crossing-the-bridge noodles) to Hunan (stinky tofu) to Sichuan (pickled fish). There are several renditions of intestines as well as spicy rock snails and stir-fried silkworm chrysalis. There’s a sweet-and-sour tomato broth, with big hunks of brisket that’s delicious sour, and a plate of well-fried chicken with a lot of mala going on. The restaurant’s name suggests rice noodles should be ordered — skip them. Go instead for the dry-pot potato chips, polygonal slices of thickly-cut potato dressed with sesame seeds, scallion, chile sauce, and spears of scallion and shallot. It’s a great warm-up to the soup.
As I was slurping down my own $15 bowl of ban mian, I couldn’t think of any restaurants operated by people from Anhui around New York. A Xiang’s owners aren’t from there either. “One of the owners — the big boss — is from Hebei, but they think they have the capability to do this kind of dish,” the restaurant’s manager, who gave me only his first name, Daniel, joked.
As it turns out, this Anhui ban mian isn’t even from Anhui province. As the journalist Hatty Liu writes in The World of Chinese, the dish traveled north from Anhui’s Taihe County, where it’s made with mutton, to Hebei, where it’s beef based. “It’s considered a dish of Shijiazhuang, which is this giant transit hub. Lots of roads, lots of train lines go through it,” she tells me. Shijiazhuang doesn’t have a long-standing, distinctive culture of its own, Liu explains, but what it does have is a lot of migrants — including from Anhui.
There are 1,700 registered ban mian shops in Shijiazhuang, according to the writer Jiahui Sun, with straightforward names like Anhui Flat Noodles, Anhui Authentic Flat Noodles, Anhui Traditional Beef Banmian, and so on. That this soup has now ended up in New York is one aspect of its seemingly unlikely journey from Taihe County and Anhui, where Sun says it isn’t particularly well known. “Shijiazhuang is a city of immigrants — it is very inclusive,” she says. “People love noodles, so ban mian could quickly get accepted.”
Photo: Hugo Yu