Xi'an Famous Foods
81 St. Mark's Place, New York NY 10003 (b/n First and Second; map); xianfoods.com
Service: About as welcoming and helpful as counter service gets
Setting: Clean but minimal storefront with limited seating
Compare It To: Xi'an's other locations
Must-Haves: Liang Pi, pork burger, tiger vegetables, lamb spine
Cost: Easy to fill up for $5; no dish cracks $10
Grade: B, in quality alone; A-, given the value
The news that Xi'an Famous Foods was opening a branch in the East Village was greeted, in certain food-obsessed circles, like the news that an underground punk band had signed with Sony BMG. Some of the devout followers of this series of closet-sized stalls (serving the food of Xi'an, the capital of China's Shaanxi province) were delighted that the hand-pulled noodles and lamb face salad they knew back in Flushing, as groupies on the 7 train, had made it to a well-trafficked Manhattan street and were inevitably poised for wider recognition. (Call them the "I Knew Xi'an When!" camp.) And then there are the "Xi'an Famous Foods Sold Out!" crowd—who will, with or without corroborating evidence, declare the new stall too new, too mass-market, too toned-down for a wider audience.
The term "cult following" was coined with places like Xi'an in mind, the sort of stall that Chowhounders and food adventurers work themselves into a tizzy over, whose critical reception in that world is so enthusiastic as to almost defy explanation. What explains the fervor its Flushing and Chinatown shops have already incited? A cynic might venture that—with pictorial menus, English-translated captions, and an unusually informative website—Xi'an Famous Foods was low-hanging fruit for Internet-savvy Flushing virgins. But we're willing to concede that it's the spicy chili oil and Middle Eastern-inflected spicing and habit-forming noodle dishes that earned their acclaim. The lamb burger, as so many bloggers have enthused, really is a great use of ten quarters; the liang pi noodles, as Anthony Bourdain once opined, really are "phenomenal... like a drug."
But, of course, a Flushing stall's move to St. Mark's—and any small operation's opening of a fourth location—could in fact result in food that's nothing like the first location. How would Xi'an Famous Foods, the East Village edition, stack up?
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. The wheat noodles themselves have an incredible mouthfeel: a gentle resistance to the bite, slick enough to slide over the palate, porous enough to soak up the sauces. 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. We preferred them to a spinach-laced green version, or the heated stir-fried version. There may already be a Liang Pi bandwagon, but we're happy to pile right on top.
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. (And even more entertaining watching, if you get a peek of the noodles getting whipped around.) 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.
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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 chomp 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. Both buns are stuffed full, though the bready bites are a bit bland on their own; with a stray corner, 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. This portion, if paired with a starch or a salad, could easily serve three.
Though we tried three times, we never managed to hit Xi'an on a day when their lamb face salad ($8.75) was available. All three times, we were pointed instead to the lamb leg salad ($9.75)—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 unpleasantly tough in one batch we had. The lamb offal soup ($4.50) wasn't a favorite, either; don't order 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 preferred the lamb pao-mo ($5.50), whose bread chunks soften into the soup, plumping up into soft pillows of fatty muted lamb broth.
A quivering pool of Chang-an spicy tofu ($2) is of a particularly wobbly nature, without the custardlike quality of some fresh tofu; 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. For another 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.
In sum, we found some of Xi'an's offerings better than others. Those familiar with the Chinatown and Flushing locations may find the food significantly less spicy here ("At the Chinatown Xi'an, sweat runs down my face!" sighed Chichi). But the eager-to-please counterfolk—including, on our visits, Jason Wang, general manager and the son of owner Lao "Liang Pi" Liang—should be able to help you dial up the heat.
Ultimately, Xi'an Famous Foods isn't about the caliber of the meat or the evolution of a menu; it's still about exciting contrast and textural play, supple noodles and crunchy-edged lamb, fiery oils and elusive spice—and, without doubt, remarkable value.
At its fast-food prices, it's even more impressive. For the price of a Big Mac value meal, you can walk home with a plate of lamb-spine topped hand-pulled noodles, or a pork burger and a tiger vegetable salad. We may not go back for everything we tried—but we'd be hard-pressed to think of a better place to feed two for ten bucks.