The waiter meanders over to the table and drops a laminated menu in front of us. The skim selection has as many food options as it does drinks—four different soups and a few ambiguously named appetizers like chinese raviolis and steamed bread.
“Is this all there is?” I ask the waiter, my tone balancing haphazardly between curious and insulted. I point to two pieces of paper taped above a window display of chicken feet and kelp salad. I assume that the four columns worth of simplified Chinese characters contains more than beef and shellfish soup. Two industrious women move quickly around the tiny open kitchen busily throwing fresh noodles into straining baskets and piling steamers one on top of the other.
“Well, yeah,” he answers, “but the Chinese are the only ones that eat that stuff. It’s not argentinizado.” He makes his kindest attempt to walk me through some other options but clearly hasn’t tried anything himself. He suggests a soup garnished with peanuts and cilantro, that one is more ‘Chinese’, he tells me. A woman and her daughter carry out the stack of steamers, “Bring me whatever is in that, too.”
Mian, which translates to ‘little sister’, is a pint-sized restaurant hidden off of the main drag in Barrio Chino. It appears to want to be hidden. Here there aren’t any red lanterns hanging from the ceiling or fish tanks in the window. There is no chau-mein or chau-fan or chau mi-fen. No sweet and sour pork or kung pao chicken, either.
The walls are adorned with ads for local businesses rather than framed landscapes of the mainland. Tables are closely huddled together and the entirely Chinese clientele share whatever space is available. The staff is pretty much indifferent. When I asked if a man across the room was eating a tea egg, the waiter just kept repeating back, ‘tea egg’ before shrugging his shoulders and sitting back down at a table in the back. I couldn’t tell if it was a question or an answer.
A shiny black bowl arrives to the table. As promised, it is garnished with peanuts and cilantro. A little dig of the spoon brings glass noodles and slices of sautéed beef to the surface of a cloudy brown broth. The beef has been drudged in starch before being quickly fried giving it an unexpected silky texture. Peanuts are lightly salted and fried and stand at a contrast from the pickled daikon radish that pop and send a quick sweet tang surge. Notes of gingko come and go and add a flavor that shuttles between earthy and a fragrant bitter that vibrates up the tongue and momentarily settles back at the tip. The glass noodles are cooked al-dente and carry in the deep beef broth with each slurp. A chilled seaweed salad is light and refreshing; an excellent balance of slightly sweet and a smooth nutty flavor from a touch of sesame oil. Steamed pork dumplings—the mystery chinese raviolis—are disappointing. The dough is too thick and, consequently, cooked unevenly and not helped by a dry filling.
The restaurant’s focus is on noodles and offal — organ and other hardcore meat cuts — many of the latter unidentifiable to the untrained eye. The chicken feet (you eat everything but the bones and toe nails) have a sweet anise glaze followed by a vaporous sour spice that settles on the lips. I’d prefer them fried to make the skin flaky, the fatty version here was still worth a try. Earthy chicken gizzards are cooked in a brown syrup that heighten the gaminess of the densely textured meat; it is strangely addictive. Layers of webbed honeycomb tripe are chewy and served in a cool and subtle sesame oil based sauce. Pork stomach is tinted red from chile oil and spiced with sichuan peppers. I preferred the stomach to the tripe; it was similarly textured but absorbed the chile better for a more robust flavor. These cuts are brought out throughout the day and diners can point and choose what they want from the display. Portions are generous and prices hang between AR $40 and AS $60 per serving.
Fish balls are cooked in a clear broth that is light and comforting—it has subtle hints of citrus and fish oil. The balls were doughy with just the right amount of fish flavor and a surprise pork filling. A sour beef soup carried a jarring fragrance that was a mix of clay and freshly sanded bamboo. It stood at a contrast to the actual flavor, which was slightly pungent. The funk from thin slices of bamboo and gingko grew, pleasantly so, with each spoonful. Here, though, the starched beef was a bit too mushy. These two came off the Chinese menu, number 17 and 18, respectively. Xiaolongbao, bite-sized soup dumplings, were what the previously mentioned chinese raviolis should have been. The absence of broth made me wonder if these were actually soup dumplings. There was enough, however, to give the pork and scallion a much needed juiciness.
Eating out at Mian isn’t an easy task—when I am not accompanied by a Mandarin-speaking friend I use the photo setting on my google translate app and hope for the best. Whatever comes to table, however, is always significantly better than chop suey and chau mien.
Mendoza 1725 | Barrio Chino
Monday through Sunday noon to 8pm
Closed on Wednesdays