As best as I can determine, shi miaodao translates into “10 seconds to arrive” or “ready in 10 seconds.” The Rockville noodle shop branded with this Chinese phrase more or less reinforces the translation with its chopsticks, which are wrapped in paper sleeves stamped with “10 Seconds Yunnan Rice Noodle.”
It should take about 10 seconds to dump the raw and cooked ingredients — each brought to the table in its own dish — into your bubbling bowl of pork broth tinted yellow with a gauzy layer of chicken fat. Those 10 seconds, then, are not a promise of speedy service but a countdown to the moment when you are transported somewhere far from this nondescript strip center along the Route 355 corridor.
“In 10 seconds,” says Tan, “you went to Yunnan.”
Your guoqiao mixian, known in the West as crossing bridge noodle soup, quickly morphs from a cloudy pork broth to a bowl fragrant with the flavors of Yunnan, the province in southwest China whose name is often translated, with mythic reverence, as “south of the clouds.”
Crossing bridge noodle soup is steeped in myth. Its origin story is an oft-told tale. It is, in fact, written on the back wall at Shi Miaodao, complete with artistic renderings of the principal characters: a scholar cloistered on a small island in the middle of a lake to study for his imperial exams, and his devoted wife who dutifully crosses a bridge to bring him his daily nourishment. But as the story goes, her noodle soup would often be cold and soggy by the time the scholar ate it, until his wife developed what we in the 21st century might call a food hack: She packaged the ingredients into separate containers, which her husband could combine when he was ready to eat.
The legend, in a sense, gets played out daily at Shi Miaodao, located a short walk from Montgomery College’s sprawling Rockville campus. Part of the reason owner Sun Hui “Danny” Ye selected this storefront, says Tan, his longtime friend and occasional interpreter, is because of its proximity to the school, where students can take a break from their own studies to escape into the clouds of this exquisite noodle soup.
Crossing bridge noodle soup is sort of a personal hot pot, except you dump all the ingredients into the broth before taking a single slurp. If you’re unfamiliar with the procedure, Zhu will guide you through it, starting with the raw ribbons of beef, so rich with inter-muscular fat they look like strips of pork belly. As the beef slowly changes color, from pink to chestnut, you add the other ingredients: a cooked quail egg, salty ham, corn kernels, tofu skin, mustard greens, fish cakes, wood-ear mushrooms, scallions, baby bok choy and a paste made from pork belly, spring onions and oil. The rice noodles go in last. You can season the soup with the chili oil and black vinegar condiments that grace every table.
The soup is really two experiences in one: The first is a fishing expedition, as you cast for morsels submerged in the liquid, alternating between bites of softened beef (or whatever you fish out) and slurps of long, luxurious noodles, each strand chewy and slightly swollen with broth. The second experience is a surprise gift: a broth enriched with all the ingredients you have plucked, one by one, from the bowl. By the end of your meal, your soup has shed its cocoon to reveal its full colors. Be sure to savor it.
Shi Miaodao Yunnan Rice Noodle is a Chinese import that has, in recent years, started to seek franchisees in the United States. Ye, a restaurateur with many years of experience in Chinese and Japanese cuisines, has the franchise rights for Rockville, he says. He spent a month at the Shi Miaodao’s corporate headquarters in Hangzhou (about 1,500 miles from Yunnan) to learn how to run one of its noodle shops. As part of its franchise agreement, the Chinese company sends Ye dried noodles and packets filled with a secret blend of spices, each one customized for the 10 or so soups on the menu.
Ye’s brother-in-law, Ming Jiang, is the chef responsible for the pork-bone broth that serves as the base for every soup, each served with the same array of add-ins.
Depending on which dish you order, the broth may be supplemented with any number of ingredients before arriving at the table: tomato paste for the beef flank and tomato rice noodle soup (with its concentrated blast of summer fruit); preserved chiles for the pickled pepper rice noodle soup (whose sourness becomes more pronounced as the broth cools); preserved brassicas for the fish and sour cabbage rice noodle soup (with its tickle of ginger and acid); and fermented vegetable paste for the kimichi beef rice noddle soup (its heat more democratic than authoritarian).
Shi Miaodao offers a handful of appetizers as well, including a toothsome seaweed salad, with a sheen of sesame oil, and a plate of fried pork cutlets, with its thud of fryer oil, either one a decent opener, especially with a tart, creamy sip of grapefruit yogurt drink.
Those first courses are composed plates that ask little of the diner. The stars of the show, of course, are DIY projects. Born of Chinese legend, these soups channel an idea that may not be immediately apparent: The line between love and hospitality is sometimes very thin.
Shi Miaodao Yunnan Rice Noodle
819 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, Md. 240-386-8596.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a one-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.95 to $13.50 for appetizers, drinks, soups and entrees.