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 flamethrowing 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.
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.