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Apr 3, 2010 02:26 PM

Xi'an Cuisine

There's a famous essay about Xi'an street food by Jia Pingwa, who was born in the Shaanxi countryside but later settled in Xi'an... Jia Pingwa, who writes about street food in beautiful cod-classical Chinese, who treats street food, 小吃 xiǎochī, as an inseparable part of the ancient capital's culture. When Jia Pingwa wrote the essay, there was a perception of Xi'an food, of all northwestern food, maybe, as torn up bread in a bowl of lamb soup-- I mean, that perception still exists... but.... His essay begins:

"They say southerners are meticulous and northerners are crude. If that's true, then northwesterners are even more crude, even more rough. Their language is thick, rich with falling tones. Men are swarthy and the women are thick. And the food! Vibrant; light on the sugar but heavy on the salt. Ah, this blessed land. Shaanxi! North: the yellow loess plateaus. In the middle: the Wei River plains. Heading south, the Qinling Mountains begin to rise. Looking over the vast banquet of Shaanxi cuisine, most of it seems to come from the palace kitchens of earlier ages, the estates of the Tang bureaucrats, and then from the tables of the commoners, and then the minority peoples of the province add a few dishes, and we get a few of the famous dishes from the city restaurants. It looks like the food of the north, but there are a few differences. Of course, in my hometown (a place that I've played at writing into my fiction), we never saw any great banquets or ate extravagant dishes. But as I've wandered around the province, I've eaten xiaochi like an anthropologist collecting folk songs. Just like folk songs, these xiaochi let you understand a little bit about where they came from. So, as I've got a moment of free time and can put together a sentence or two, I ventured to write down what little I know about each dish. Think of it as an unpaid advertisement, and I'll think of it as a chance to relive the experience of sitting down to eat each dish, a chance to see if I can recall the particular flavor of all those minor delicacies."

Everytime I read that, I wish I was in Xi'an.... The only real deal Xi'an place in Vancouver is in the Richmond Public Market, run by a man from Xi'an, named Mr. Duan. Under the counter of his stall is an article from a Chinese newspaper, with the headline, 《吃了就不想西安了》, eat it and you won't miss Xi'an anymore.

There's a lineup some days, people coming for 凉皮儿 liáng pí'r, flat noodles served bare bones Xi'an-style with mashed garlic and vinegar, people coming for 大饼 dàbǐng, people coming for the hundred variations on 拉面 lāmiàn. I'm going to say that Xi'an Cuisine has the best pulled noodles in the city, perfect texture. 肉夹馍 ròujiāmó is another big seller, too, of course, but we've covered that already, right? There are some weeks where I eat ròujiāmó for lunch three or four days in a row.

There's a super extensive menu, but the real obscure things (obscure for Vancouver) aren't available all the time. Stuff like, 油茶 yóuchá, a kind of sweet porridge made from toasted flour and hemp seeds, Mr. Duan says it's easy enough to make but nobody asks for it except the occasional Xi'aner, so it's only available very, very, very rarely. My favorite thing to get there is another semi-rare item, the 粉蒸肉 fěnzhēngròu, pork steamed with rice flour, with puffy bread to stuff the meat into-- it's available most Saturdays and the occasional Sunday.

And, yo, I even dusted off my Finepix and took some flicks.

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  1. Thanks for the report. Not much Xi'an food makes it to this continent. There's the 3 branches of the Xi'an Famous Foods in New York City, improbably rocketed to stardom from the basement of a small food court in Flushing by its appearance on Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel food show, and that's probably it.

    1. I was just down at the market today having a roujiamo! I'd say that was a total coincidence, but given the number of times that you've raved about/visited this place, not a surprise at all!

      I still have yet to try the liang pi'r, which looks amazing: part of the pitfall of going at lunchtime. One totally needs to go with a ravenous appetite.

      1. Great report and as usual the poetics make it a great read. Let me contribute some pictures from my past visits a Xian Cuisine (including pics of their version of roujiamo)...

        4 Replies
        1. re: fmed

          those look good ,what are the photos of ?,i dont know the cuisine well .that goes for all the pics on here,im drooling now and need to know

          1. re: howlin

            The noodles are called liang pi'r 凉皮 which is a homemade cold rice noodle "salad" dressed in a sesame oil, garlic, vinegar dressing.

            The burgers are roujiamo 肉夹馍 which are homemade wheat buns similar to english muffins stuffed (in this case) with a pulled pork braise (hints of five spice, etc.)

            The skewers are Xinjiang (Uighur) lamb skewers - yangrou chuan’r 羊肉串 - lamb chunks skewered, then dusted with salt, cumin and chilies and grilled.

            And the buns at the very back of the first picture are pan fried beef pie - niu rou xian bing 牛肉馅饼 - yeasted wheat dough stuffed with braised beef, steamed, then pan fried flat to finish.

            1. re: fmed

              nice info thank you .i have a separate question as well .when i see what you type as chinese figures all i see is numbers in boxes .is that normal?or do i have to download something else?

              1. re: howlin

                Hhmm...I don't know. I use Firefox on a Mac and it just works. You may need to download or enable the Simplified Chinese font or something. Try this:

        2. One place you should check out if you haven't yet is Peaceful on Broadway near Cambie. The proprietors are from Xi'an. The restaurant itself serves a good survey of food from the Northwest to the Northeast with a few things from Shanghai, it is not a purely Xi'an restaurant. (Understandable considering their location and target market.) They have a number of Chinese Muslim dishes. If you phone ahead, they can do lamb skewers (which they deleted from their regular menu due to insufficient demand - they were the best ones in the city).

          2 Replies
          1. re: fmed

            Yeah, Peaceful is consistently good or great. I prefer it to any Chinese food outside of Richmond or Burnaby. But... a) you know, maybe I'm crazy, but I prefer the atmosphere of a mall food court, and, b) I had a friend who worked there and their employment ended pretty acrimoniously, so, out of solidarity, I kinda avoid it.

            1. re: DylanLK

              I'm with you on the food court atmosphere. Since we have been talking a lot about street foods, a food court is really the most appropriate venue (until such time as the authorities allow street carts with real food). We are lucky to have such food courts here.

          2. I wouldn't make a very good food blogger. Yeah, I like discovering new things, but once I've discovered them, I tend to want to settle in. Today, I almost made it to the Skytrain, to ride across the bridge and take the 99 east down to Commercial and take the Millenium over to Metrotown-- almost. But I kept walking past the Skytrain station, to my Public Market, to grab some roujiamo or maybe a bowl of lamian. But! At the top of the stairs I noticed a new place: 卤至深 Lu Zhi Shen-- actually, someone had mentioned this place to me, because of the name.

            卤至深 lǔ zhì shēn is an exact soundalike of 鲁智深 Lǔ Zhìshēn, a famous tough guy in the novel 水浒传 Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn, Outlaws of the Marsh. Now you can see why it's not translated into English, right? It's impossible. Lǔ Zhìshēn's my favorite... he kills a dude in a fight because he was bullying this chick that was into, then he has to join a monastery to hide out. He gets his head shaved and monk's robes and everything, but he kept sneaking out and coming back to the temple drunk, eating a roast dog leg. His picture is on the sign.

            卤至深 lǔ zhì shēn means... 卤 lǔ, you probably know it from 卤蛋 lǔdàn, tea eggs, boiled in a dark soy sauce-y, anise-y soup until they turn deep brown... and I think you could translate 卤至深 lǔ zhì shēn as "marinated until dark," but that's a pretty rough translation.

            But what was it like?

            Well, you know, it's easy to do this stuff, right? But hard to make it really good. The duck gizzard was, you know... pretty good. No complaints worth making. I ordered a bowl of 卤牛肉面 lǔniúròu miàn, noodles with the marinated beef. The beef was, again, pretty good.. but the noodles themselves bummed me out. I know it's not a noodle place, and I know it just opened, and I probably should have been happy to get away with some pretty good duck gizzard... but the noodles were sub-instant noodle, sorta like you'd expect in that powdered Campbell's chicken soup in a bag, with soup that wasn't much better. I think of MSG the same way I think of fake breasts, I hate 'em, but if you can fool me, well, then that's okay. But who's fooled by silicone implants or yellow chicken powder? Cooks, your soup is probably good (even if a tad bland) without a bump of MSG-- stay natural! Those noodles, though. Man, I wanted to cry. You know the ones I mean, right? The mushy soft white ones. It broke my heart to be eating those noodles when I knew that every other place in the Public Market has better noodles.

            Gizzard was good, though. And, you know, they just opened, and you know, it's not REALLY a noodle place, and you know, I hate to say anything bad about a place based on a single visit.


            After that bowl of noodles, I needed to clear my head, cheer myself up, so I went to Xi'an Cuisine for a bowl of 牛肉拉面 niúròu lāmiàn. Ah. This is why I keep going here. This is why I have habits. I know what it's gonna be like. I know that they know me. I like being a regular, you know? And that bowl of noodles, best pulled noodles in the city, with a great sproingy texture and a certain SNAP to the noodles. And the soup... hey, it's nothing special, I'll be honest, but is about as good as it gets with a glug of black vinegar and a spoonful of chili oil spreading out into a Milky Way of red bubbles across the surface of the soup.

            Check out the pictures, though.

            11 Replies
            1. re: DylanLK

              LOL on the Silicone and MSG comparison. I agree...if you are going to use either, make it subtle.

              Great background on 卤至深 (which my translation S/W translates as Deep Brine which I guess is like Deep Marinate, etc.). Hard to see from the picture of the stall - is it all Chinese signage?)

              Back to Xi'an food: I should try their pulled noodles given your endorsement. I would like to try their 粉蒸肉 fěnzhēngròu, pork steamed with rice flour with puffy bread.

              Isn't there a faster all Skytrain way to get to Metrotown? (Canada Line to Waterfront then Transfer to Millenium Line to Metrotown?)...but I know what you mean. You are already in the thick of things in Richmond. You've got a sure thing with Xi'an Xaochi already.

              I was going out exploring for food today too but ended up with "our usual" - Vietnamese at Song Huong in my neighbourhood. I guess it was just that kind of a day. (I had their Bun Hen - Baby Clam Noodles with Banana Flower Salad.).

              1. re: DylanLK

                I saw this place yesterday and was a bit mesmerized by the angry mascot on their signage - thanks for the explanation.

                In terms of the soy sauce braise, I always associate it with Chiu Chow noodles (particularly the duck), so I was just happy enough to see a dedicated stand. There doesn't seem to be any Chiu Chow dedicated places in town; when we left Calgary in 2006, there was a great Chiu Chow place in Chinatown where one could get this kind of soy sauce wonderment (along with the other staples: fish ball noodles, oyster omelettes, oyster congee, etc). The only place I've ever seen carry this in town is at, of all places, the Phnom Penh in Chinatown.

                So, it's a bit heartbreaking to hear that it ain't up to snuff.

                BTW, I think you'd make an excellent food blogger...maybe that's something we should chat about sometime.

                Also: has anyone tried the claypot rice place in the Richmond Public Market? I'm completely fascinated. One of my favorite memories of winter in HK is seeing the claypots lining the street.

                1. re: clutterer

                  Yep..I noticed a number of Chiu Chow dishes in the Phnom Phenh menu (which is dominated by the Chui Chow - Cambodian food, as a matter of fact...which is a major cuisine in Cambodia...along with pure Khmer cuisine.)

                  There used to be a crypto Chui Chow place on Fraser that I only heard about after it stopped operating (it was in a Bubble Tea joint - not sure exactly where). Also on Pender in Chinatown used to be a good Chui Chow place (second floor - anyone remember this place?) that closed a very long time ago now.) Then there is the now closed VIP's on the North Shore that was pretty highly rated. (edited to add: there is the Chui Chow stall at Yaohan center too...mediocre, but they have these great deep fried wings....)

                  1. re: clutterer

                    Haha, my knowledge of Chinese literature leaves me unemployed but pays off at weird times, like explaining restaurant signboard jokes.

                    Check this place out, though. Grab some duck gizzards. They have cool stuff like lotus root slices, too. Just order noodles, though.

                    Hey, I'd love to be a food blogger, though.

                    1. re: DylanLK

                      Dylan on Vancouver Slop -- what a coup for clutterer!

                      1. re: fmed

                        If not the Slop, maybe something else we can conjure up.... ;)

                    2. re: clutterer

                      I went for a job interview way out past 5 Road today, the edge of the world, where there's nothing but warehouses and janitorial supply companies and stuff. But I found a place, in a little whitewashed warehouse strip, between an autobody shop and an industrial pressure washing company (I forget what it's really between, but you get the idea).

                      English name is Tasty Noodle House, Chinese name is 南记米线 南记米线 Nán Jì Mǐxiàn. They have a cheap lunch special, 5.95 for meat and rice, but they've got rice noodles in their name and everyone else was eating rice noodle, too. There's an order card where you choose what you want in your noodles and I saw they had a big list of 卤味 lǔwèi stuff. I got the standard beef, some large intestine, and a 卤蛋 lǔdàn, tea egg. So good! Maybe it takes a long time for a place to sell 卤味 lǔwèi, for the broth to get deep and delicious and figure out the flavors, I don't know. The pork guts were awesome, with a deep soy sauce and anise flavor, and obviously stewed with care-- the texture was great, sort of like a slightly melted balloon, which sounds terrible but is the most accurate description: sorta soft and almost creamy, with a bit of rubberiness remaining and a great SNAP when you bite through it.

                      The rice noodles were the way I like them, tough enough to tow a trailer when they first come out, but slowly softening just a bit. Still chewy. And a decent, honest soup.

                      Address is 1B-12880 Bathgate Way, so it's not quite as convenient as the Public Market.

                      Tasty Noodle House
                      1 B 12880 Bathgate Way, Richmond, BC V6Y, CA

                      1. re: DylanLK

                        Hey good luck on the interview!

                        1. re: DylanLK

                          "Sort of like a slightly melted balloon" = my vote for best description of food item so far in 2010 on this board :-).

                          Hope you get the job, DK!

                      2. re: DylanLK

                        I went to Public Market, and I had my favorite BBQ lamp skewer as usual....noticed 卤至深 LuZhishen too. but take a look at these pictures, they changed.....
                        Now they have pretty nice pictures showing their marinated food, and they have BEEF TONGUE!! I like it so much!!! the beef tongue they have is different what Guu has, but good! I don't like the small pieces, i dont know which part of the tongue those are, but those bigger slices....good!!! soft and tendon! you guys should go and try it!

                        Back to 新疆美食Xin Jiang Delicious Food, I always order Cold Beef noodles and Lamp skewer, but haven't tried anything else, what do you guys recommend? anything better than the beef noodles? by the way, I don't eat lamp except Lamp skewers : )

                        Check out the pics, guys!!

                        838 Thurlow St, Vancouver, BC V6E1W2, CA

                        1. re: Pennhxl

                          Get the fenzhengrou (rice steamed braised pork with steamed buns) at Xi'an (see DylanLK's rec somewhere on this thread. Pic attached:

                          ( can get this dish at Xi'an stall not the Xin Jiang stall. The Xin Jiang stall is merely "OK". I like the skewers better at the Xi'an place. I recall that the XIn Jiang stall has decent pulled noodles (lamian)...and when freshly made, the nan (naan) is good...but it is more often than not dry and stale).

                          Have a look at DylanLK's recs for the Xin Jiang stall here -