Dining meat-free in Chinatown can sometimes feel like a risky proposition: dishes listed under "vegetables" often sneak in some kind of pork, and if there's any kind of language barrier at all, it can be difficult to determine which offerings are totally vegetarian. And although much regional Chinese fare relies heavily on noodles, vegetables and tofu, oftentimes Chinese restaurants on these shores add meat to these dishes to accommodate American tastes.
Happily Spicy Village, a casual, popular and fast-paced sliver of a restaurant on Forsyth Street in Manhattan's Chinatown, offers a surprise number of vegetarian dishes on its tiny, focused menu, which relies most on superb, chewy wheat noodles of varying thicknesses, either dry-fried or served in soup. (Meat eaters can be contented with the excellent big tray of chicken and other specialties.)
On a recent evening, my dining companion and I snagged a table early—this place fills up every night, so it's a good idea to get there around six—and settled in for an overall brightly flavored and satisfying meal. When choosing an appetizer, there was some debate between us over whether Triple Salad ($4.25) was a misspelling of tripe salad, but a large pictorial menu on the wall cleared things right up: this small plate actually consisted of a tiny pile of cold smoked tofu drizzled with chile oil; spears of fresh cucumber pickles with a touch of heat to them; and a tangle of slippery, sesame oil-coated strands of briny seaweed. For me, this is the definition of what an appetizer should be: light but packed with flavor and a little bit of heat, to stoke the appetite for what's to come.
Both of the fried noodles dishes I sampled at Spicy Village were superb. First up was Egg and Tomato Humei ($5 and incredibly reasonable for a huge bowl), in fact kind of a brothy, soupy dish although listed under "Dry Hand-Pulled Wide Noodles." Those noodles came elaborately garnished with tender baby bok choy; shredded cucumber; and a pile of fluffy strands of scrambled eggs. The deep broth tying the whole dish together was sweet and buttery, featuring chunks of fresh tomato.
Perhaps an even better dish came next, Spice Scallion Red Oil Hui Mei ($5). I had absolutely no idea what to expect of this: this time, it turned out, those wide, chewy noodles came dressed in a thick, immensely flavorful sauce spiced with clove and star anise. They were topped, again, with emerald-green bok choy, and scattered with veritable handfuls of cilantro and chives whose freshness helped cut through the (welcome) oily richness of the dish.
I liked both of the soups I tasted at Spicy Village, but felt that their vegetarian-ness came through too strongly, the broth too thin and akin to water. Still, they both featured tasty, well-cooked ingredients and with their low price tags, more than sufficed. Vegetable Hui Mei ($5) was the weakest dish of the night, its broth far too wan, but the smoked tofu, dried mushrooms, and bok choy within all satisfied.
Steamed Vegetable Dumpling Sour Soup ($6) arrived in a huge bowl, 12 dumplings bobbing in a sea of again too-thin broth that was at least made somewhat more interesting by a healthy glug of black vinegar. I found the dumpling skins to be just a touch too thick and spongy where they should be thin and chewy, but was fond of the filling: shredded cabbage, mushrooms, carrots and dark greens, nicely punched up by a hit of fresh ginger.
Part of Spicy Village's appeal—besides its excellent noodles and super-low prices—is its setting: servers are warm and friendly, and within such a small space that gets packed so quickly, that helps create a fun, convivial atmosphere. It's a welcoming place to spend a cold winter night.