World / Reporter's Journal

Cuisine of Xi'an warms the bellies of many a New Yorker

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-12-08 06:36

There's one area of US-China relations that no one has to worry about, and that's Chinese cuisine.

I'm not talking about the Americanized Chinese food staples, such as the great General Tso's chicken, lo mein, egg rolls and chop suey. (That said, there are some Chinese-American chefs who are fierce defenders of such dishes.)

I'm talking about mainland Chinese street food, the kind found in the city of Xi'an in Northwest China's Shaanxi province, home of the Terracotta Warriors.

Cuisine of Xi'an warms the bellies of many a New Yorker

And that food for 10 years has been popularly exemplified by the Xi'an Famous Foods chain in New York.

"The main key is to create and maintain a product that is enjoyed by people and that is delivered consistently to the best of abilities," Xi'an CEO Jason Wang told China Daily. "Our following are discerning people that wouldn't otherwise stick around for us if the product isn't good."

At age 26, Wang made Crain's New York Business' "40 under 40" list of rising entrepreneurs in 2014. He learned the craft working in his father David Shi's restaurants.

The famous part of Xi'an's name is accurate. The restaurant already has more publicity than it needs, getting a huge push after appearing on chef Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show back in 2008.

China Daily first highlighted the restaurant in 2011. It also has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Post, Fortune, ABC News "Nightline", Food Network and Travel Channel — just a sampling of the media that have offered testimonials.

Chen Weihua, China Daily's chief Washington correspondent, motivated me to sample Xi'an Famous. He makes it a point to head east to Xi'an's 45th Street shop (a couple of blocks from the paper's Times Square offices) whenever he is in the city.

"As the starting point of the Silk Road … the city (Xi'an) also boasts a unique cuisine that combines Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors. Heavy in cumin, chili, Sichuan peppercorns, and other spices, local specialties range from famous hand-ripped 'biang biang' noodles, seared in hot oil, to lamb 'burgers' with a jalapeño kick. Not for the faint of heart, but famous for a reason," the Xian website beckons.

You enter Xian's through a glass door, into a narrow space. You either stand by the door to take out or compete for a space to eat in. If you stay, you walk up a couple of stairs through a narrow corridor leading to the kitchen window, where you wait for your number to be called.

There are 15 or so low seats in close quarters in the main dining area, but there's a good chance you'll be gorging your fiery quarry while standing at a wood counter in that narrow hallway.

Xian's food appeals to people of all nationalities. The chain has a good brand (they sell T-shirts) and goes for a hip vibe, with pictures of Chinese models and celebrities (who ate there) on the walls.

Shi, originally from Xi'an, started with a 200-square-foot basement stall in the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing, Queens, home to one of New York's booming Chinatowns. That original location, opened in 2005, is said to be the first restaurant to bring Xi'an cuisine — noted for its hand-ripped noodles, secret spices and burgers with house-made flatbread — to the US.

Xian's now has six locations in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and two in Queens.

My first trip there I figured I'd make simple. That pork burger looked good but kind of small. I'll get two. Well that flatbread was a lot heavier than it looked, and after the pork fat began running down my wrists, I thought twice about ingesting two. But of course I did.

Then in my second trip I entered the heart of Xi'an — "Stewed-Pork Hand-Ripped Noodles: Our biangbiang wide, hand-ripped noodles mixed with pulled pieces of stewed lean pork belly meat, and mixed in a sauce containing its own juices."

What is intriguing about this dish is the heat given off by the peppery oil, softened by the chewy, pleasantly sweet noodles. This is a meal that on the plate looks like too much for one sitting. But that won't stop you until you're done.

Like any popular restaurant, you have to find out for yourself if the buzz translates into the real deal.

Xi'an's does, but I wouldn't recommend any aerobic activity on a bellyful of pork belly and noodles, at least not for a few hours.

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