Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Essex Street for the freshest noodles on the Lower East Side.
Public Village, a cute little Sichuan restaurant on lower Essex Street, soft-opened to much local excitement on Friday, March 13th — chef and co-owner Kiyomi Wang is married to Kyo Pang of neighborhood favorite Kopitiam, so word was definitely out that this was a must-try. But the opening was followed by a closing, as the city began shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A month or so later, after some retooling of the menu, Wang and co-owner Jia Song reopened Public Village as a takeout-only operation, with noodles as the main focus.
Someday the azure-blue restaurant will seat about 15 inside, and Wang and Song clearly envision Public Village to be not just a solid spot to grab a bite, but also as a friendly gathering place for the community, a room in which to linger. In fact, the tagline on the half-finished website still reads "Eat, Drink, and Gossip like a Sichuanese." For now, though, pandemic protocols are firmly in place, and no one is allowed inside except for staffers and, occasionally, Wang's corgi Kaya.
You can order from Public Village via Grubhub and the like or, much better, by calling or stopping by the restaurant and picking up. There's a menu encased in glass by the front door and, after you've decided, just ring the bell and a masked-up Song will step outside to take your order. Of course, you should also be wearing a mask while speaking with her, and at every other moment you're out in public and not in the actual act of eating. It's also customary these days to tip at least 25%, in case you hadn't heard.
Seward Park across the street offers many outdoor seating options, though the vacant chess tables are ideal.
Chef Wang is from the Sichuan province of China, and her family is part of the Yi minority in that region. At Public Village during these early, to-go days she's concentrating mainly on noodle bowls, most of which can be ordered "dry" or as a soup. Because brothless tends to work better for picnics, all three of my choices were requested this way, and all three were terrific.
Wang makes her noodles — spinach, egg, clear vermicelli, mung bean, or wheat — fresh to order and on site, and they are pleasantly chewy, full of flavor, and excellent vehicles for sauces and mix-ins. The Wan Zu Noodles featured funky ground pork, mashed yellow peas, and bitter wilted greens; the Scrambled Egg and Tomato Noodles bowl was hearty, spicy, and sweet; and the Chengdu Dan Dan Noodles completely satisfied (momentarily!) my perpetual craving for that dish.
Noodles appear in other places too, like the fantastic Sichuan Style Homemade Dumplings, plump with pork and fiery with homemade chili sauce, and the gloppy and delicious Grill Chilled Noodle Wrap, stuffed with chicken sausage (aka hot dogs), melted cheese, cucumbers for lightness and crunch and Sichuan alioli. Served cold, it's instantly one the city's best stoner-food dishes.
Wang's deep fried Chicken Skeleton sounded good but maybe works better as a share-with-the-table snack than a solo picnic item; instead I got the Crunchy Chicken Feet which, pickled in chili vinegar, were both pleasantly spicy and surprisingly refreshing. And the Crispy Pork Strips were as fun to eat as you'd expect a container of Sichuan peppercorn-battered, deep fried bacon to be.
Both beverages, a tangy Mom's Plum Juice and an also-tangy Elderflower Tamarind punch, were delightful. Finally, for dessert, the Bing Fen puts blobs of raindrop jelly to good use, swimming in a plastic container of "homemade syrups" and topped with peanuts, raisins, hawthorn flakes, sesame seeds, and rose petals. It's probably prettier when plated to dine inside the restaurant proper, but this is the world we live in now, and it still makes for a lovely finisher on a warm summer evening.
With lots of first-rate noodle dishes, several unusual snacks, and a handy park right across the street where you can eat in comfortably distanced fashion, Public Village is a total summertime winner.
Public Village is located at 23 Essex Street, between Canal and Hester Streets, and is currently open every day except for Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (646-476-7501; publicvillagenyc.com)