Liang Pi cold skin noodles
Xi'an's Liang Pi cold skin noodles ($4.50)—which, the squeamish should note, contain no skin—are about as good as a shop's signature dish gets. Taut but supple, they bounce back from a gentle tooth-tug. They're served with chunks of wheat gluten, squeaky sponges that cradle the chili oil and vinegar and fiery sauces that grace nearly every dish. Add the herbal effect of cilantro and the watery crunch of bean sprouts and you've got a circus of flavor and texture atop already exemplary noodles.
Spinach Liang Pi
A special bright green spinach Liang Pi ($5.50), spinach incorporated into the noodle, cost a dollar more and tasted absolutely identical.
Stir-fried Liang Pi
Though still tasty, we thought the noodles of the stir-fried Liang Pi ($5.50), essentially the same dish heated through, ended up softening a bit too much for our liking. But those who prefer their noodles warm might be satisfied, and the extra bit of chew on the spongy wheat gluten wasn't a bad thing at all.
The hand-pulled noodles, pictured here with "spicy and tingly beef," couldn't differ more from the Liang Pi—soft, doughy, tattered and uneven, in a way that makes for terribly entertaining eating. They stop just short of being mushy, but maintain a curious, almost custardlike texture that gives you the impression they'd dissolve if they sat on your tongue long enough. We found the beef a bit too tough for our liking; fans of their lamb burger might prefer the cumin lamb topping.
After all, there would be no Xi'an without their signature lamb burger: not a burger at all, but a sandwich that, at $2.50, will run you about as much as a soda does in many parts of Manhattan. Cooked with onions, jalapeño peppers, and enough cumin to render both of them almost irrelevant, the lamb gets plenty crispy, but the occasional rogue chewy bit makes the sandwich a bit less appealing. It's one thing when you want to get a little nub of chewy fat with your meat; it's another when you're trying to chew through a sandwich.
We were surprised to find we preferred the pork burger ($2), whose intensely juicy stewed pork didn't show the same unpredictabilty; it's a salty, fatty, meaty experience all the way through. Barbecue fans may quake to hear it, but this little guy isn't a far cry from a Carolina pulled pork sandwich, if not smoked, of course—meat so cooked as to almost dissolve, plumped by its own juices, a little vinegar tang. Both buns are stuffed full, though dry and bland on their own; we'd recommend a swipe through whatever red sauce is inevitably left over from your other dishes.
Far and away the best of the meat dishes we tried was the lamb spine ($6.50)—which may sound intimidating, but is nothing more than remarkably flavorful lamb meat that happens to be clinging to the animal's backbone. Long stewed in broth and spice (we thought we detected cinnamon and star anise), it was fatty and salty and soft in all the ways you want slow-cooked meat to be. It was also the most balanced in terms of lamb flavor; though we don't mind the character of lamb meat, the warm spices mellowed the aggressively gamey flavor many of the other dishes exhibited. The more adventurous will appreciate the healthy marrow stores; save the spine for stock. This portion, if paired with a starch or a salad, could easily serve three.
Lamb leg salad
Though we tried three times, we never managed to hit the East Village Xi'an on a day when their lamb face salad ($8.75) was available. (If your heart's set on it, head to Chinatown.) All three times, we were pointed instead to the lamb leg salad ($9.75)—one that will make cilantro lovers happy. It's got much of the contrast that makes Xi'an's food so appealing: chili oil calmed by cooling bean sprouts, chewy meat and crunchy celery. That said, the lamb leg was almost brisket-like in one batch, taking real effort to jaw through, and a bit gristly in another. We loved the salad, but not the meat.
Lamb offal soup
Don't even think of ordering the lamb offal soup ($4.50) unless you're ready for a bowl full of unadulterated organs swimming in fatty broth that tastes of stomach. (Would that be the stomach of a lamb cannibal?) And, honestly, maybe even not then. We spotted tripe, liver, tongue, and heart ventricles, but found none of them particularly appealing, nor the thin vermicelli a particularly apt fit. (Our discerning offal expert Chichi Wang wasn't a fan, either.)
We preferred the lamb pao-mo ($5.50), whose bread chunks soften into the soup, plumping up into soft pillows of fatty muted lamb broth. Traditionally, bread is torn and tossed into the soup, although we didn't think Xi'an's pre-torn bread bits detracted from the experience. Though the amount of bread makes for a mellow base, however, there's hot sauce, cilantro, and incredible pickled garlic to liven things up. (Those cloves are improbably poppable. Resist, lest your entire subway car later that day relive your lunch with you.)
A quivering pool of Chang-an spicy tofu ($2) is of a particularly wobbly nature, without the custardlike quality of some fresh tofu; it's quite neutral on the tongue, the taste of soy barely perceptible. But as with much of Xi'an's fare, it's the house hot sauce, oil, and healthy pile of cilantro that make the dish worth ordering.
Tiger vegetable salad
Need a break from the lamb? The tiger vegetables ($4.50)—cilantro, jalapeño, and green onion—may sound better as a garnish than as a salad in its own right, but a gentle sesame dressing calms things down. It's an aggressive salad, but one that goes down quickly.