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Xi'an Restaurant -- in a tiny basement food stall, a taste of western China

Brian S Mar 10, 2008 05:53 PM

I skulked along the back corridors of the Golden Mall, my head bowed, my face buried in my coat collar. I'm a regular customer of Chengdu Heaven and I didn't want them to see me eating in a rival establishment. But I was bound and determined to eat at the only restaurant in the New York area offering food from Xi'an.

Stall Number 36 at the mall at 41-28 Main Street, Flushing, is a narrow space with every square inch of wall space devoted to photographs of luscious-looking food. I was deciding what to order when the man who runs the stall came up. He speaks fluent English and was glad of any opportunity to try it out. I told him I'd been to Xi'an and he wanted to know the exact neighborhood; he grew up there and probably misses it. We talked and then I asked about a lamb dish in the photos. Have it mixed with this, he said, pointing to a photo of wide noodles. It didn't sound like a good idea, but I tried it anyway. I'm glad I did. It was delicious!

The lamb was on top. It was lamb brushed with cumin, just like you'd get at Little Pepper or Chengdu Heaven. But Xi'an probably got it first. The idea of using cumin came from the west, along the silk road, back when Xi'an, then called Chang'an, was the capital of China and arguably the center of the world. Twelve hundred years ago the central market at Chang'an was ringed with hundreds of food stalls (probably a lot like this one) featuring food from Persia and points west, as well as food from China. In any case, the cumin lamb, mixed with a few green peppers, was excellent. But the noodles were the star of the show. Broad, chewy and hand-cut (something like peel noodles), they were unlike anything I'd ever tasted. There were tiny cubes of bread mixed in to soak up the sauce -- and again I've never had anything like that reddish broth. A rich, very unusual and totally unidentifiable flavor. I used a spoon to make sure I got every drop.

Though Xi'an is pretty far west of, say, Peking, it isn't really Western China. But I think the food was very much influenced by the West -- not the west of Europe, or cowboys, but the West of the Silk Road, chaikhanas serving turbaned traders, mud-brick mosques. And indeed there was no pork on the menu. Xi'an has a small Hui Muslim minority, and some of the best restaurants offer Hui food. I have no idea if the owner is Hui. But his food is certainly influenced by Hui cooking, and this stall offers a rare chance to try it.

More on Hui cuisine:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hui_people
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_...

-----
Golden Shopping Mall
41-28 Main St, Queens, NY 11355

  1. Brian S Jun 8, 2011 03:25 PM

    Today's Times has an article about Xi'an Restaurant and how it has evolved, about the two generations running it, and about how it was discovered by "the food geek message board Chowhound".

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/din...

    7 Replies
    1. re: Brian S
      j
      JFores Jun 8, 2011 05:05 PM

      Very nice. Where are you these days, btw? You used to be a Chinese review powerhouse on here.

      1. re: JFores
        Brian S Jun 9, 2011 11:17 AM

        And so were you! I went to the last stop on the F train because of you. I'm in Tulsa, still writing reviews, which you can read from the link on my profile page.

      2. re: Brian S
        driggs Jun 9, 2011 11:32 AM

        I pick up food from the Chinatown locations about three days a week; today I have never seen it so crowded. Seems the NYTimes story did the trick.

        1. re: driggs
          el jefe Jun 9, 2011 01:07 PM

          The Times can do that in Manhattan but they have a limited effect in Queens. After a disappointing scouting trip to the New World Mall, I had lunch at Xi'an Famous and the dumpling place in the Golden Mall. It was nearly empty.

          -----
          New World Mall
          40-21 Main St, Queens, NY 11354

          1. re: el jefe
            Cheese Boy Jun 9, 2011 11:52 PM

            El jefe, why disappointed at New World ??
            In the words of the Jimmy Castor Bunch -- the fun has just begun.
            Tunage --> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWl01J...

            1. re: Cheese Boy
              el jefe Jun 10, 2011 06:26 PM

              This seemed like the Asian version of every mall food court in America (as opposed to mall food courts in Asia which can be amazing). Lots of pre-cooked food. There must have been 7 or 8 stands with pre-cooked dumplings sitting on a tray going stale. If that's their plan for something that can't be pre-cooked, and they're targeting people who will accept that, then I'm not interested.
              There was very little interesting that I couldn't get at the Golden Mall where I know it will be stellar. The most interesting thing I saw at the New World Mall was the "Peruvian Chicken" at Burger Shack.
              Cheese Boy, what did you have that was "fun"?

              1. re: el jefe
                Cheese Boy Jun 10, 2011 07:47 PM

                El jefe, totally agree with you on avoiding the pre-cooked items -- skip over those completely -- except if its tofu sheet salad ... try it (stall #16). I've been to New World Mall only three times and eaten only once. Went to, of all places, Noodle Village So Good because I was craving some pho. Pho Express was still not open at that time and I didn't want to go over to Kissena. So I walk up and order (#34?) Beef Brisket and Tendon soup, and I opted for thin egg noodles. I wish I had bought some thai basil from upstairs and some bean sprouts because this soup was so good that I'd put it up against any of the best phos I've ever had. The depth of the broth was incredible. The beef (and tendon) was not only tender, but it was delicious and flavorful too. There was no hoisin or Sriracha sauce around, but I did put some ground white pepper, hot sauce, and chili paste in my soup. To me, that was all a fun experience even as pedestrian as it was. Now I've got my sights set on Hottest 86, Lanzhou Handmade Noodle, and the interesting LZ Cafe. There's so much yet to explore there, and when people start posting about their experiences, you'll see that each stall will start to develop a following. Give it time yet, that's all.

      3. bigjeff Apr 6, 2009 08:27 PM

        finally ate at this place and had just one dish: ma la yang lian or, hot spicy lamb face. its been getting some coverage on various sites so, had to check it out. for $8.75, various gelatinous fatty chunks of lamb face, over bean sprouts, various herbs, chili oil, peppercorns, wasabi, cilantro, etc. not on the menu so you gotta ask the proprietor (can't miss him, basement level) and he'll hook you up. an extreme hawker of the 21st century, his patter eventually gave way to slight annoyance but probably because we bantered in mandarin for awhile. kept trying to push his lamb burger and liang pi which are very popular but, this was just one stop of many.

        anyway, hard to describe but you just gotta eat it if you want rich, fatty deliciously soft pieces of meat covered in sichuan pepper oil and other piquant stuff. would go perfectly with a single order of the liang pi I think.

        6 Replies
        1. re: bigjeff
          j
          JFores Apr 7, 2009 01:14 AM

          Awesome. I really need to give that a shot. I've been eating his standard stuff there for a while but I'm particularly fond of the biang biang mien. The lamb face sounds great though.

          BTW, has this man opened a full on McDonalds-style liang pi and Chinese burger empire yet? If he hasn't got one within the next five years I'll be shocked.

          1. re: JFores
            k
            kathryn Apr 9, 2009 08:38 PM

            He's got his stuff in a local Flushing supermarket...
            http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2009/0...

          2. re: bigjeff
            k
            kathryn Apr 9, 2009 08:37 PM

            We found the lamb face salad to be too big, but we were also doing a massive crawl and ordered the burger and liang pi. Did you get a funky looking piece that you weren't sure was an eyeball or a nose? Or any other weird parts?

            1. re: kathryn
              bigjeff Apr 10, 2009 08:51 PM

              oh ya it was all just richness and gelatinous-ness . . . all kinds of goopy stuff, some pieces were like slices off a terrine-like thing so there were some corners and straight edges; lot of flavor although it could have used more ma-la; I think getting a liang-pi and that would feed say . . . 2 or 3; it's plenty rich and heavy so the liang pi would prob. help to cut (and soak up) some of the oil.

            2. re: bigjeff
              k
              kathryn Apr 9, 2009 08:39 PM

              The liang pi are good but I think the portion is too large for me, I get tired of the same thing after a while. But the lamb burger? Heaven.

              1. re: kathryn
                m
                mrnyc Apr 13, 2009 09:40 AM

                that's funny, i am the opposite with that order. i just inhale the liang pi. not that it stops from getting the lamb burger too. i am happy to say that i am getting to be quite a regular here!

            3. Flaco Mar 19, 2008 06:23 PM

              Just want to say thanks about downstairs at 41-28 Main that has been the subject of several threads. I went there today and settled at a place that has a lunch counter and about 4 booths. The matriarchs and their daughters? in US Flag doo-rags! were serving up beef and noodles to the lunch counter and hot pot supplies to the booths. I sat at the counter and realized that this was much better than 2 East Broadway and am planning a return visit with reinforcements to take over a booth. They made sure I knew that this was Chongqing cooking and I've never been happier being a neophyte in Flushing...

              1. s
                surly Mar 11, 2008 01:56 PM

                hey brian, this is actually the same stall that was discussed in another thread from last february, complete with photos:

                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/370750

                in that thread, i'd mainly talked about the ro bing (what the owner referred to as "chinese hamburgers"). and one of the meat options for those "sandwiches" is shredded pork (along with lamb and beef). so the place definitely isn't halal.

                the owner told my mandarin-speaking friend that he's not muslim, but because of the muslim influence on xi'an's culture and cuisine, you'll find a lot of muslim-derived dishes at non-muslim establishments...which results in pork dishes like at this place.

                anyway, when i first went to this place, the menu was scattered on numerous slips of colored paper hanging on the walls. but sometime toward the end of summer (i think), he replaced them with those color photos, which obviously makes the ordering process far easier for those of us who don't speak mandarin.

                last time i went a couple of weeks ago, the owner directed me to a lamb soup with wide flat noodles...possibly the same one you had, although there were numerous soups utilizing those noodles. i thought the one i received was simple but quite good, with several similarities to the flat noodle lamb soup served by the guy at the henan stall upstairs ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/350358 ). the main differences, though, were that the lamb chunks were bigger and less fatty, and there was no sliced soybean curd or seaweed. basically, it reminded me of a simpler version of that henan noodle soup in that it had fewer flourishes.

                12 Replies
                1. re: surly
                  Polecat Mar 11, 2008 11:11 PM

                  Surly,
                  Yeah - you beat me to the punch. I had figured from Brian's description that this was the Ro Bing place, only it seems as if it has expanded its' menu items. The photos strike me as being a relatively recent thing - something I only noticed a few weeks back. Another giveaway was how friendly the guy is, very welcoming. I've had two ro bings, the pork and the lamb. The pork reminds me of pulled pork, whereas the lamb can be alternately greasy and crispy, depending on where you bite into the thing. The one time I tried their lamb noodle soup, which had to be around a year ago, I wasn't crazy about it. But then, that was one time, so it might not be fair to judge.

                  In any event, although this stall has been discussed on this board, I'm glad to see it get a thread of its' own. There are still quite a few stalls down there that haven't gotten as much attention. A few of them seem to have hot pot selections.
                  P.

                  1. re: Polecat
                    bigjeff Mar 27, 2008 09:48 PM

                    lamb that is alternately greasy and crispy . . . DAMN that sound good.

                  2. re: surly
                    Brian S Mar 12, 2008 09:26 AM

                    Yes, it's the same stall. (Though I'd totally forgotten that post and when I went there I thought I was the first to report on it.) The sign is the same (and so is the phone number) and does indeed say Xi'an. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/132/38...

                    1. re: Brian S
                      squid kun Mar 16, 2008 02:56 AM

                      Doesn't matter who gets there first. (You actually posted in the 2/07 thread, and even phoned this stall, right?) Anyway, your revisit and update, on a place little mentioned for more than a year, are much appreciated as always.

                      1. re: squid kun
                        Brian S Mar 16, 2008 08:57 AM

                        Ah yes I did, and I stayed in Tulsa for six months after that, and by the time I got back to New York I'd totally forgotten about it. So when I prowled around the mall after my first meal at Chengdu Heaven I thought I'd made a new discovery. And I think I found some different dishes. I want to try that spicy blood thing. I noticed the photo on the wall and also saw it in that old post. For anyone who hasn't read that old post yet, it has translations and explanations of most of the menu. (They didn't have photos then.)

                        1. re: Brian S
                          j
                          JFores Mar 19, 2008 06:56 PM

                          I might be able to check the place out tomorrow, God willing. I need to get my food Chinese packet together for menu reading. I can only read Szechuan dishes! Any advice?

                          1. re: JFores
                            Xiao Yang Mar 27, 2008 08:47 AM

                            Here's one useful character that's easy enough to spot:

                            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biang_bi...

                            1. re: Xiao Yang
                              Joe MacBu Mar 27, 2008 05:50 PM

                              The biáng biáng miàn has always been my favorite item at this place. I didn't know what it was called until now (I'd just been pointing to the photo). Thanks.

                            2. re: JFores
                              Xiao Yang Mar 27, 2008 09:39 AM

                              Here are a couple of more useful links. In the first one, you can lick on the picture to get to the next page:

                              http://xian.qq.com/a/20060814/000055.htm
                              http://www.ncic.ac.cn/~majie/xian/xian.html

                              Here is a gallery with english translations of some items I put together soem tome ago. Click on and photo to emlarge it. Unfortunately the original source cited has gone 404. ("You cannot step into the same river twice...."):

                              http://eatingchinese.org/photogallery...

                              1. re: Xiao Yang
                                f
                                fredid Mar 27, 2008 07:58 PM

                                "You can lick on the picture"? How ChowHoundy!!

                                1. re: fredid
                                  Xiao Yang Mar 27, 2008 08:26 PM

                                  LOL, your mouse can, anyway.

                                  Acutally, I probably can on my touch-screen UMPC, but I haven't tried it.

                      2. re: surly
                        Xiao Yang Apr 28, 2008 04:16 PM

                        I've fallen in love with this stall since returning to NY for a visit. I had penciled in Chengdu Tian Fu but they were closed when I got there at 8:45, while the Xi'an place is open until 10:00, and I haven't looked back. (At any rate, I have reasonable options for close-to-the-bone Sichuan cusine in the SF Bay Area, not so for Xi'an cuisine.)

                        A minor point: the "Chinese hamburgers" would be called rou jia mo, rather than rou bing (which are typically fully enclosed). I've yet to try the pork version, but have downed several of the lamb ones and one beef (which, if anything, was even better spiced than the lamb ones). Best damn $2.50 burger in town!

                        The biang biang mian is great, too, and the lamb noodles beat the heck out of the lamb soup at the Shanxi knife-cut noodle place across the hall.

                      3. t
                        toby1355 Mar 11, 2008 11:47 AM

                        Brian,

                        You really do deserve a lot of credit, Bravo! I was at Chengdu Heaven on March 3, noticed and posted about the photos.....But they had no English labels and I just assumed that language would be a problem...that's what you get, Felix Unger when you assume. Can't wait to go back and try .....also, as I mentioned in the earlier post, across from the photo stall, I watched a cook stretching hand pulled noodles....again, "food" for thought.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: toby1355
                          Brian S Mar 11, 2008 11:55 AM

                          Thanks to all for your kind words. Toby I saw your post (and meant to reply) and it reminded me about that Xi'an stall and inspired me to try it. I spoke to the guy in Chinese and was very surprised when he responded in fluent English. The Xi'an stall was very crowded, by the way. I went back a few minutes later to get a $1.50 vegetable turnover (very good), and all the seats were taken! By the way, my meal, not including the turnover, cost $7.

                        2. j
                          JFores Mar 10, 2008 07:18 PM

                          I love you and you are my favorite poster on this whole forum.

                          I'll be hitting up this stall as soon as I get home on he 17th or 18th. In fact, I'll probably go straight from the airport.

                          1. MOREKASHA Mar 10, 2008 06:28 PM

                            I just got back from X'ian last week (yet to post). Did they have the gray/black noodles, made from buckwheat (kasha)?

                            1. l
                              Lau Mar 10, 2008 05:55 PM

                              wow awesome report...you really find some interesting stuff

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