At this Alexandria noodle shop, diners find joy in moderation, not extremes
By Tim Carman
The city formerly known as Zhongdian officially changed its name to Shangri-La in 2001, largely to attract tourists captivated by the mythical paradise depicted in English author James Hilton’s 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon” Located in northwestern Yunnan Province in China, the real Shangri-La bills itself as a retreat from modern life, a place to reconnect to nature and to yourself, not unlike Hilton’s fictional Valley of the Blue Moon, where the locals have a different relationship with time and earthly pleasures.
Whatever you think of Western exoticism of the East — a trope that doesn’t play well in the 21st century — Hilton pushed a kind of spiritual equilibrium via a character named Chang, the voice of Shangri-La and its monastery in “Lost Horizon.”
“We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds — even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself,” Chang tells Hugh Conway, the lead character of the book. “We have found that the principle makes for a considerable degree of happiness. We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste and moderately honest.”
I’ve been thinking about this philosophy in connection with Yunnan by Potomac, a small, meditative noodle house in Alexandria that is, yes, just a short walk from the namesake river. The restaurant is one of the precious few outlets serving Yunnan cuisine in the metro area and the first one I recall that doesn’t hedge its bets by also offering up orange chicken, beef and broccoli, and other staples of the Chinese-American cookbook. That fact, all by itself, makes Yunnan by Potomac something of a Shangri-La in the DMV.
But that’s not the point I hope to make quoting “Lost Horizon.” After visiting Yunnan by Potomac nearly a half dozen times, I’ve come to the conclusion that the place doesn’t travel the high seas, offering an experience that trades on intensity and adrenaline, like some of its cousins that specialize in Sichuan or Xi’an cooking. Yunnan by Potomac prefers to navigate a course through calm waters, under ideal conditions, as serene as the pale blue walls inside this narrow space.
We tend to think of moderation as this sweet spot between excess and self-denial. But there are times when I think moderation is something more complicated, like an ability to moderate your expectations of others, including those serving a cuisine still relatively new to Washington. Yunnan by Potomac asks you to revel in a bowl of noodles, without burdening it with the expectations of something that it’s not. Yunnan cuisine is not Sichuan cuisine, and it’s not Dai cuisine — the latter with ties to the flame-throwing traditions of northern Thailand — even though Yunnan cooking may incorporate elements of both.
I’ve been on the phone several times with Zongmin Li, chef and co-owner of Yunnan by Potomac, and she’s given me a tutorial on the food of her native land. It’s a place surrounded by countries and provinces with some of the most distinctive cuisines on Earth: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Sichuan, to name a few. Yunnan is also a diverse region, home to dozens of ethnic groups and countless plant species. Often called the “Kingdom of Plants,” Yunnan is known for its varieties of mushrooms — hundreds of them, Li says.
Yet importing Yunnan produce is next to impossible, especially with the ongoing trade war between China and the United States, so Li has had to find alternate products. It’s a difficult task for anyone, let alone a novice to the restaurant business. Li moved into hospitality after a distinguished career in economic development, working on land reform and poverty issues in China, Africa and Central Asia. She decided to open a restaurant after a stint in Beijing from 2013 to 2016. During that period, she returned to Yunnan, her first visit back home in more than 30 years. She immediately fell in love again with mixian, the slightly fermented rice noodles that are slurped for breakfast all over Kunming, the provincial capital.
At Yunnan by Potomac, mixian (roughly pronounced “me-she-yen”) is the slippery base for five bowls, some dry and some swimming in house-made broths, all requiring a vigorous stir before you dig in. Until you learn the particular alchemy of Li’s kitchen — led, incidentally, by her daughter-in-law, Jia Cui — you might take one look at the colorful bowls and think they will explode on contact with the tongue. Several combinations, including the pork-forward Little Pot Mixian and the chicken-heavy Grandma Parou Mixian, find red chile oil floating on the surface, almost ready to burst into flames. But these bowls are built for comfort, not destruction.
In fact, if there’s a trait common to the three broth-based mixians, it’s this: The soft noodles tend to be bashful. They frequently refuse to pick up the other ingredients, which mingle and concentrate at the base of the bowl. Your wooden spoon then becomes your friend. You’ll need it to suck down the bottom-dwelling broths, where the pickled mustard stems will really start to pop and the chile oil will finally ignite. The noodles in the drier preparations exhibit no such shyness, boldly flirting with every ingredient in sight. The Liang Mixian Salad is the single finest dish in the house, its black vinegar, chile oil and sweet Chinese soy illuminating the rest of the bowl-mates.
The small-plates menu, including a separate one for seasonal bites, has a few dishes that will impress you with their simplicity. The clean, watery crunch of sliced cucumbers is offset with a savory swirl of sweet soybean paste cut with chile vinegar, the combination totally irresistible. A small plate of shredded Asian pear and pickled radish, both invigorated with lemon juice and zest, pops with tartness and sweetness in equal measures, a Chinese lemonade that you eat with chopsticks.
The servers may sometimes act as shy as the noodles in those soupy bowls. There’s a reason for that: The wait staff are students from T.C. Williams High School — “Remember the Titans”! — and they’re part of Li’s plan to use her business as a vehicle to help others in the community. The students’ unflappable personalities seem to fit right in at Yunnan by Potomac. They’re not too exuberant. They’re not too gruff. They would appear to be further evidence — much like the restaurant where they work — that happiness doesn’t reside in life’s extremes, but in a sweet middle ground of moderation.
IF YOU GO
Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House
814 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, Va., 571-699-3935, yunnanbypotomac.com.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday; dinner: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Prices: $4 to $11 for small plates; $15 for mixian bowls.
Cheap Eats 2019: Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House
WRITTEN BY ANN LIMPERT , ANNA SPIEGEL , JESSICA SIDMAN AND CYNTHIA HACINLI PUBLISHED ON AUGUST 1, 2019
About Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House
LOCATION(S): 814 N Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
AWARDS: EAT GREAT CHEAP 2019
Come seeking comfort at this southwestern Chinese noodle house steps from the Potomac River. In a quiet room hung with tapestries from co-owner Zongmin Li’s native Yunnan, you’ll find chrysanthemum tea and the soft rice noodles called mixian. The spaghetti-like strands are the specialty here, either in delicate soups or a homey toss of tender braised beef and its jus (a summery alternative: the refreshing liang mixian salad with marinated chicken and vegetables). Bowls can make a meal, but small plates—tangy cucumbers, steamed lotus-leaf buns with pork belly or tea eggs—are worth the diversion.
About Eat Great Cheap 2019
This article is a part of Washingtonian’s Eat Great Cheap feature, our annual list of where to eat (and not break the bank) right now. Our food editors put together the best new restaurants around DC where you can find Detroit-style pizza, Japanese egg-salad sandwiches, chicken-nugget-filled tacos, and more—for $25 or less per person.
Hot Opening: Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House
FEBRUARY 22, 2019 by STEFANIE GANS
We are deep in noodle soup season, a perfect time to explore past the region’s obsession with ramen and pho. Meet mixian.
It’s a Chinese noodle soup from Yunnan Province, featuring round rice noodles in a pork broth. Eater and Rachael Ray say it will be the next carb-filled bowl to capture our attention. And Saveur wants you to eat it for breakfast.
Northern Virginia has its own version with Yunnan By Potomac. Opened earlier this month in Old Town Alexandria, the menu is slim to start—when I was there last week there were five items (all $15) to choose from at lunchtime. The little pot mixian is deeply savory, and the piggy flavor shines through especially with craggily formed pork meatballs and a few thin slices of roast pork. Bits of pickled mustard green stems add a punch, but mostly it’s a homey, meaty, carby display of how a good broth makes the world a better place. // Yunnan By Potomac: 814 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria
New Noodle House Introduces Yunnan Food To Alexandria
This restaurant specializes in food from the Yunnan province of China
By Emily Leayman, Patch Staff
Feb 27, 2019 11:46 am ET
ALEXANDRIA, VA—Yunnan by Potomac Noodle House opened in February and will mark its grand opening Saturday, March 2 in Alexandria. The restaurant is located at 814 North Fairfax Street.
The restaurant introduces the food of China's Yunnan province to Alexandria. The main dish is mixian, or rice noodles served with meats, broth and more ingredients.
The owner, Dr. Zongmin Li, grew up in the Yunnan province and came to the U.S. to pursue a doctoral degree. After working abroad on property rights and natural resource management in development for two decades, she pursued her dream of bringing Yunnan cuisine to the U.S.
"When we found that none existed in the Greater Washington Area, we knew we had to seize the day," states the restaurant's website. "In Alexandria, we could offer our food to a community that dined out often and had cosmopolitan tastes."
Zongmin and her husband and business partner John Bruce decided to open a restaurant specializing in mixian noodles in their home of Old Town North. The couple traveled to China last spring to taste mixian foods and learn about food preparation from local chefs. Upon returning home, everything fell into place when the former Broscato's Deli space opened up. They began renovations on the location in October before opening on Feb. 2.
The restaurant is open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Dinner hours are 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Asian Noodle Restaurant to Celebrate Grand Opening in Alexandria
Yunnan by Potomac, A Noodle House, will celebrate its grand opening Saturday in Old Town North.
BY MARY ANN BARTON
FEB. 26, 2019 | 7:17 P.M.
A new Alexandria restaurant specializing in Asian noodles, Yunnan by Potomac, A Noodle House, will celebrate its grand opening Saturday starting at 12 noon, at 814 N. Fairfax St. in Old Town North.
The owner and general manager is Dr. Zongmin Li, who grew up in Yunnan, China. She has always been a devotee of Yunnan’s mixian, and has enjoyed sharing the distinct and flavorful noodle dishes with friends and family. Now she is pursuing a long-standing dream of bringing Yunnan cuisine — mixian rice noodles in particular — to American diners.
The new restaurant specializes in the rice noodle dishes of Yunnan Province in China’s far southwest. Mixian (rice noodle) is the base for a huge variety of dishes at the new eatery,
prepared with savory sauces and broths, braised meats, Chinese chives and other ingredients. Mixian is the “soul food” of Yunnan, and for Yunnanese far from home, their comfort food. Vegetarian options are also available.
Check out the menu at: yunnanbypotomac.com. The restaurant's hours are:
Monday throughThursday: 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: noon – 3 p.m. and 5:30 – 10 p.m.
Sunday: Lunch is served from noon – 3 p.m.
Zongmin received her masters from University of Beijing, and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 90’s to pursue her doctoral studies in economic development.
After receiving her PhD in development economics came two decades of work with USAID, the World Bank, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and Ford Foundation in China, Africa and Central Asia. Her work has focused on the role of property rights and natural resource management in development.