There was a time not too long ago when most Americans had no idea what Xi'an cuisine was like.
I was one of those people.
I first discovered the cuisine of the Shaanxi region of China in 2o11 when Bryan and I visited the city of Xi'an to see the world famous terra cotta warriors. Though food was not the main purpose for that excursion, we soon discovered a whole new cuisine that we had never tasted before.
Food from our trip to Xi'an
Imagine: crazy wide, flat noodles tossed in a spicy, garlicky chili oil sauce; a hearty lamb stew where you broke up pieces of dry bread by hand yourself to eat with the stew. Our time there was short (less than 48 hours), and thus we only had limited to explore the fascinating cuisine.
Little did I know that about six years earlier, a bubble tea shop owner in Flushing, New York had started selling food from Xi'an, his homeland, on the side for fun. Pretty soon, the dishes began selling better than the bubble tea. The family opened the first location of Xi'an Famous Foods in 2005.
The popularity of the restaurant exploded. The family began opening more and more locations around New York City. People lined up, often out of the door, for this different type of Chinese cuisine filled with hot chilies, fresh cilantro, tons of garlic, and fresh chewy noodles.
The craze seeped into Boston, where Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe opened up in Chelmsford, 45 minutes outside of Boston. Despite the remote location, hungry diners made pilgrimages out to the suburbs to savor Gene's spicy chili noodles, lamb stew, and many other authentic Xi'an dishes.
I was a huge fan of Gene's, but I still wondered what Xi'an Famous Foods was like, since I had heard so much about it. Finally, this past trip to New York, Bryan and I discovered a location of the restaurant in Midtown (34th street!), not too far from Penn Station where we would board the train later to head back to Boston.
The Tiger Vegetable Salad ($5.00) was Bryan's dream. Finally, a salad where cilantro is actually the main salad green! Here, cilantro is tossed together with spring onions, celery, and sliced long horned peppers in a sesame vinaigrette. It was refreshing and delicious.
The Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles ($5.50) was also very good. Liang pi is a wheat-based noodle made by a time-consuming process that involves steaming and slicing into strips a "skin" that forms at the bottom of a pan from setting out a milky, flour-saturated solution overnight.
The flavors are bold and addictive. A family secret blend of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and chili oil together with the fresh cilantro, springy fresh gluten, and cucumbers come together with the chewy noodles to form a perfect, vibrant dish that's hard to put down.
The Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger ($4.00) was one of my favorite dishes. The hot "buns" were warm, toasty, and just a bit crispy on the edges. The cumin lamb was tender and boldly flavored. It was messy to eat, but worth it. I much preferred these to the ones from Gene's in Boston.
The Spicy and Sour Spinach Dumplings ($7.00) were fine, but in the end weren't among my favorite dishes.
Finally, the Spicy Cumin Lamb Hand Pulled Noodles in Soup was also very solid, with chewy noodles and flavorful lamb. I personally preferred the noodles at Gene's, which I find to be more chewy and al dente. However, these were still pretty good.
All in all, I really enjoyed our fast meal at Xi'an Famous Foods. The flavors are vibrant, the lamb "burger" is delicious, and the noodles are solid. We're always looking for places to grab a quick dinner before heading to Penn Station to catch our train.
This place is perfect for that.
Xi'an Famous Foods
(10 locations throughout New York!)
- the one we visited
14 E. 34th Street
Manhattan, NY 10016