Xi'an Famous Foods (St. Marks Place location)
Just a quick review based on one meal this weekend:
(Photos here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/09/x...)
The famous spicy lamb cumin burger was smaller than I remember it being last February or March, with much less filling and less heat. (I seem to recall the "burger" as being mouth-blastingly hot.) But the flavors were still delicious. The pleasantly moist, sliced lamb, sauteed with onions, cumin and hot peppers, went nicely with the slightly dry flatbread, which had been griddled to a good crisp.
The filling in the stewed pork burger practically melted on our tongues. Slightly sweet flavors (with a touch of five spice and ginger, I believe) reminded me more of the cuisine of Shanghai than of northwestern Shaanxi. My dining companion thought the pork burger was bland in comparison to the lamb, but I think I preferred the former for the wonderful texture of the meat.
The huge disappointment of the meal was the lamb treasures soup, which was rich and flavorful when I last had it the winter prior. This time, it was so watered down it tasted like dishwater. The woman who took our order kept asking my dining companion whether he knew what he was ordering -- for those who don't know, "treasures" = "the family jewels" -- and also dissuaded him from ordering it any spicier than mild. The result was horrible. Additional spicing would've at least masked the flavorless broth. There were only a few scant bits of thinly sliced lamb "treasures", which had been overboiled, mixed with an equally frugal amount of glass (mung bean) noodles and cilantro leaves. I picked out the five pieces of bland, mushy meat (devoid of heat, salt and other spices) and fed them to my dog. And though I never, ever throw away food, I really had to dump the rest.
Happily, the Mount Qi pork noodles were much better, an enjoyable medley of sour, spicy and salty. Thick, hand-pulled noodles had a slight amount of spring and had soaked up flavors from the other ingredients, which included pork belly, scallions, celery, vinegar and black bean sauce. The Xi'an mini empire was built on hand-pulled and lian pi ("cold skin") noodles and happily, it still does these quite well.
Like a lot of restaurants, Xi'an's quality has slipped a bit with fame. (It's been featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Andrew Zimmern's Bizzare Foods, in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and lauded to high heaven on Chowhound.) But the kitchen still does well by some old standards. I don't know if I'll be braving the soup again for a while, but you could do much worse than those "burgers" and noodles.
Xi'an Famous Foods
81 St. Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003
I've had the cold skin noodles at the St. Marks location, and they were very fine (so fine that I can actually conjure up the taste in my head - I'm doing it right now!). On my visit, I was asked by another patron to take his picture next to the picture of Anthony Bourdain on the wall. I saw right away that the picture of Bourdain was taken at the E. B'way branch, but far be it from me to disappoint an excited fan. So if you're reading this, starry-eyed-tourist, I apologize for my sin of omission. I meant no harm.
re: small h
I'm pretty sure those lian pi noodles induce some sort of euphoric / hallucinogenic effect, they're so spicy. I notice that all the locations have started offering the food mild, medium or hot, though, so you can calibrate just how much pain you want to endure / enjoy. I think that's a new thing -- at least new as of this past year.
Have you noticed any difference in quality among the different branches? I haven't been to Flushing in a while, but as between E. B'way and St. Marks, it does seem to me that E. B'way is slightly better.
Xi'an Famous Foods
88 E Broadway, New York, NY 10002
I've only been to the E. B'way & St. Marks branches, and I had Mount Qi vegetables in soup at the former and cold skin noodles at the latter, so I can't make an apples-apples comparison. I agree with you about the euphoria thing; it's an endorphin rush in response to the pain in your mouth.