Xi’an is Famous for Something Besides the Terracotta Army

Next stop on the NYC food tour was another Anthony Bourdain-featured location, Xi’an Famous Foods.  The restaurant’s original location was in Flushing, but they recently opened up a Manhattan location in Chinatown, and not the Chinatown that tourists haunt, but the Chinatown right under Manhattan Bridge which is a part of Chinatown rarely visited by anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese.  Hehe!

This place  specializes in Muslim Chinese cuisine which is found in the Western region of China known as Xi’an.  So in addition to a menu more slanted toward lamb than I have ever seen in an Asian restaurant, this restaurant is known for it’s hand-pulled noodles which they prepare right on the spot for everyone to see. It was quite an interesting site to see, because they are essentially pulling apart and slapping around these long, thick strands of noodles.

As a special treat for my followers, I’ve asked our resident foodie and NYC food guide, Ckoh, to write the rest of the this entry on Xi’an Famous Foods, since he seems to pay homage to this place like once a week. Yes, he finds it to be THAT good. So without further ado, here is Ckoh’s review….

I’ve been asked to write a guest entry on xian famous food – one of my favorite eating spots in Chinatown (hell New York). I try to make it out to its tiny Manhattan outpost underneath the Manhattan Bridge once a week (usually walking there from work for a long lunch along with a coworker who is equally enthusiastic about the food). Before I delve into Xian Famous Foods, i’ll give a little background in my experiences in the actual Xian in mainland China.

Xian is probably most famous to westerners at least as the place tourists go before seeing the Terracotta Warriors buried by the 1st emperor of China, Qin. my memories of Xian revolve around eating street food in the large muslim district there. If I hadn’t stumbled upon street vendors there, I would have starved since the regular restaurant I naively entered once completely ignored me when I sat down. I ignorantly expected Xian to be a quaint village that I could easily walk across end to end. Instead, I found a sprawling, rather unpleasant metropolis of 8 million. (a friend – who happened to be Chinese-American asked me after I returned “Wasn’t Xian awful?” I would have agreed aside from the awesome and cheap street food I consumed and the cool Terracotta Warriors.

Xian was the chinese nexus for the silk road and I’m guessing that the spices that the Muslim population uses in their cuisine today arrived as a result of the prosperous trade which went along this route. What did I eat in Xian? A lot of spicy lamb and a fair amount of dumplings. The flavors and textures are fairly distinct and despite the fact that these meals cost an average of a $1 or so at most – they were some of my favorite eating experiences in China.

Last year, Anthony Bourdain did a special on his “No Reservations” show about the outer boroughs of New York. He’s a native New Yorker, but like many Manhattanites – he pretty much never leaves the island. So he devoted a special to exploring the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, and Queens. While in Flushing with some Mandarin speakers, he visited Xian famous foods and chowed down on some lamb burgers and hand pulled noodles. It looked incredibly yummy, but it also looked difficult to find and access for non-Mandarin speakers. so when I heard that Xian famous foods was opening an outpost in Chinatown – I was very excited. I went late last year during winter for the 1st time and ever since I’ve been hooked.

There are basically three items that I get on a regular rotating basis: the Cold Liang Pi Noodles, the Lamb Burger, and the hand pulled Noodles with Spicy Lamb and Cumin.

I was asked to write this entry because ostensibly my memory of what the food tastes like would be more precise. but to be honest, I mainly devour the food and concentrate on how good it tastes. but I’ll try my best to describe each item.

Cold Liang Pi Noodles: I asked my friend whose favorite dish are these Cold Liang Pi Noodles to describe the flavors and textures. First, they’re not exactly “cold” but not served stir fried and hot. It’s like a mix of vegetables, bunched up tofu, noodles, and spice. you have to request “mild” or “not spicy” otherwise you risk crying in pain. I’m not exaggerating. I spent my first meals at Xian in tears due to the level of spiciness. They may be tears of pleasure, but nonetheless you will suffer. anyway, here are some descriptive terms for the Cold Liang Pi Noodles which are not nearly as thick as the hand pulled noodles. There are bean sprouts and a sauce consisting of vinegar, chili, oil, salt, and other ingredients. My friend gave these adjectives: spicy, chewy, juicy, fragrant (cilantro and sesame paste), salty, vinegary, and crispy (because of the cucumbers and bean sprouts). It’s a combination that is both light and deeply satisfying in comfort food type of way due to the heat of the chili.

Lamb Burger: It’s not a “burger” per se but grilled lamb meat served between a roll of this Muslim type bread served in the Saanxi region. The lamb is grilled with cumin so it’s not gamey at all, but wonderfully spiced. The bun is flatbread that may appear to be bland – but blends beautifully with the lamb. It’s small enough to serve as an appetizer or warm up before you eat the Cold Liang Pi Noodles. I usually get this in conjunction with the Liang Pi.

Hand Pulled Noodles (with spicy lamb and cumin): The lamb meat is similar in taste to the Lamb Burger, so I get this in lieu of the Lamb Burger and Liang Pi since this is a heavier dish. It requires more prep time since you see them actually pull the noodles on the table with their hands while it’s still uncooked dough. It has a thick chewy texture and hearty taste. As a result, both the noodles and lamb are very tender and spiced to perfection. Hand pulled noodles are 2800 year old tradition. I’ve also had this in soup based form on a cold winter day and it really hit the spot. You can substitute pork other meats/vegetables I believe.

The biggest down side of Xian famous foods is that the operations are very manual and old fashioned, so you could end up waiting 15-20 minutes for your food. Plus, the space is tiny and cramped with barely enough room inside for the staff to cook. Two people could stand and eat inside if it’s not too crowded, but otherwise, you better either live extremely nearby so you can take it home or else pray for good weather so you can eat in a park nearby (which is what I typically do).

Food: 4.5 stars
Decor: 1 star (But who cares – if you care about decor in Chinatown, you might as well give up)
Service: 2.5 stars (They’re very friendly and nice – but a tad slow. there is a more efficient young guy who speaks fluent English who has sped up operations in recent months. but the Mandarin speaking women tend to backlog orders simply because they make things as people order them).

But honestly, service and decor are moot – if you care about good Asian food (and if you don’t go away and stop reading this – I’m sure there’s a Macaroni Grill calling your name somewhere). You definitely must try Xian Famous Foods if you’re in the NYC area.

In conclusion, I agree with Ckoh that this place is worth the trek to try out (but maybe not as regularly as he does). I’m a fan of the noodles and particularly the Cold Liang Pi ones, so here are two votes to send you all off to visit this little outpost the next time you’re in NYC Chinatown.

Xi’an Famous Foods
88 E. Broadway, Suite 106
New York, NY 10002

PAFO Ratings for Xi’an Famous Foods :
Price 1 ½ stars
Ambiance 1 star
Food 3 stars
Overall rating 3 stars

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris says:

    There are still some cap errors (like Chinese is left lower case) if Peter’s really bothered by my original ee cummings style.
    They’re opening on St Marks and 1st ave in a week or so with a sit down area. It doesn’t really help me since that’s a bit too far east to be convenient for me. But I suppose it’ll increase their Manhattan business exponentially.

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