The menu at Xi’an Famous Foods features names like Chang’an spicy tofu and Mount Qi pork hand ripped noodles, recalling the dynasties, adventurers, and armies that Xi’an has seen in its long history.
It was from Chang’an (as Xi’an was called in the Han dynasty) that Zhang Qian was sent out on the Silk Road by the emperor to negotiate with Central Asian tribes in the second century BC, and to which he returned thirteen years later with tales of a ten-year imprisonment and several other adventures among strange peoples in distant lands. Chang’an was also the city where the New Year’s Lantern Festival was supposed to have reached unparalleled heights of splendor and hedonism in the Tang dynasty. Mount Qi refers to a mountainous area near Xi’an, but may also call to mind the attempt of Shu Han (the kingdom of the South) to take Chang’an that lead to the disastrous Battle of Mount Qi.
But we are in Flushing. Hip hop from the 1990s plays in the background and young couples on dates come in for a spicy meal. The hip hop is not merely a passing whim of the waitstaff: old-school hip hop always plays at Xi’an Famous Foods. A plaque on the wall explains that the restaurant’s owner sees a link between the spicy, multicultural food of Xi’an and the spirit of old school hip hop.
The owner is not the only one impressed by the diversity of Xi’an. Residents of Xi’an I’ve talked to are proud of it. “We have so many dialects,” one Xi’an resident told me, “and a lot of different foods.”
I am interested in the foods, of course.
I order spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles. Hand-ripped noodles, or biang biang mian*, originated in Shaanxi province (of which Xi’an is the capital). They are a kind of hand-pulled noodle. Unlike la mian, which are pulled until they are thin strands, biang biang mian are pulled into thick, broad straps of noodle, in shapes often compared to belts. And unlike the noodles of Zhengzhou, these are not braised—they are thrown in boiling water for several minutes and then served, making them a little less chewy. In Xi’an, they are often served with beef or lamb, probably partly due to the influence of the Muslim Hui population in Xi’an, who cannot eat pork.
My biang biang mian come in a pile with sliced lamb, cabbage, and diced cucumber. This is all slathered thickly in cumin and chili oil, with a handful of sliced green chilies adding some extra fire. The noodles and lamb are hearty, the noodles chewy and the meat tender. A hint of Sichuan peppercorns gives the chili oil a tingling touch and a clean, high note. The cool cucumbers counterbalance the green chilies and round out the flavor. It is a very satisfying dish.
The music track seems to be the only bold stroke in the ambience at Xi’an Famous Foods. But the interior design reflects the same interest in translation, making the food of Xi’an accessible for Americans. There are no decorative knots, Chinese landscape paintings, or imitation bronzes. There are no decorations at all; instead, the walls are covered in a mosaic of multilevel wood paneling. It is at once fashionable and generic in a way that is perfectly suited to chain restaurants.
Indeed, from the original stall in the basement of Golden Shopping Mall (with a menu of four items), Xi’an Famous Foods has branched out to locations throughout Queens and Manhattan. It would not be surprising if they open locations in other major cities.
The food is well worth trying, wherever you can find it.
*There is no Unicode for the character biang. This is a shame, since the character is celebrated, and frequently displayed prominently on stores selling biang biang mian. Here is an image showing the simplified character (the traditional character is a bit more complex):
Xi’an Famous Foods
41-10 Main St,
Flushing, NY 11355
Sun-Thurs: 11:00am – 9:30:pm
Fri-Sat: 11:00am – 10:00pm