41-10 Main Street Flushing NY 11355 (at 41st; map); 718-888-7713; biang-nyc.com
Service: Polite but variable; occasionally prompt, occasionally distant
Setting: Sharp, modern wood-paneled interior could be in any neighborhood in New York
Must-Haves: Lamb skewers, any wide hand-pulled noodles
Cost: $10/person is plenty, $15/person is a feast
Grade: Given the value, A-
Food trucks, restaurants, outer-borough neighborhoods: New Yorkers often talk about these as if there's a sharp distinction between "immigrant" and "hipster," old-school and new-school. What I love most about Xi'an Famous Foods is how much it blurs those distinctions.
Wait, retract that sentence; what I love most about Xi'an is their hand-pulled noodles. But go with me here.
Xi'an got its start out in Flushing, a small stall in Flushing's Golden Mall basement serving the food of Xi'an, the capital of China's Shaanxi province. And while it might have found its way to mainstream Manhattan recognition on the strength of its hand-pulled noodles and lamb face salads alone—not to mention a few shout-outs from Anthony Bourdain—it was aided immeasurably by the savvy of Jason Wang, general manager and the son of co-owner Lao "Liang Pi" Liang. The father brought the food to the operation ("Xian's menu was pretty much already set when I got into the business," Wang told us); the son brought the ability to position their brand in online, bloggy, modern New York food circles.
Even before they opened their Manhattan Chinatown and East Village branches, Xi'an's unusual accessibility to an English-speaking crowd had made it a cult favorite; as we said in our Xi'an review in 2010, "with pictorial menus, English-translated captions, and an unusually informative website, Xi'an Famous Foods was low-hanging fruit for Internet-savvy Flushing virgins." By the time they made Manhattan inroads, Xi'an Famous had already established a brand that few other Flushing stalls had (or, even since, have).
So what does a young restaurateur do once his casual operation makes it in Manhattan? Head back to Flushing to open a full-service restaurant—but one just as distinct from other Flushing restaurants as Xi'an was from so many food stalls. Let's call it hipster Flushing. (In the best of ways.)
"The goal was to elevate XFF from its location in the Golden Shopping Mall to street level," says Wang, "but along the way we felt that it's a space we can do more with, so we created the new brand Biang!, using the best of Xi'an Famous Foods and adding more value onto it."
Aesthetically, Biang!—yes, the exclamation point is part of the name—could be straight out of Williamsburg. There are exposed lightbulbs, bare brick walls with framed panda cartoons (is that a panda riding a tank?), and a soundtrack my Brooklyn friend unironically called "sweet jams." No one seems surprised when a diner whips out her iPhone to Instagram a bowl of noodles or a lamb burger (hell, even their website looks like an Instagram composite).
They're intending beer and wine as soon as a license comes through, and a backyard garden that'll be finished soon. "There are places [in Flushing] that have spent tons of money on decor," says Wang, "but to me these places are not personal but feel rather cookie-cutter made. I'm pretty sure none of the owners of these places drew plans for their own interior design or selected their own art, which I did. "
Biang!, incidentally, is named for the character that refers to the slapping sound noodle dough makes when it's pulled—a character with 56 or 57 brushstrokes, the most intricate one in the language. It's stunning to look at but so detail-rich that its distinct lines fade away if you're not looking too carefully. Which is a pretty apt metaphor for the restaurant, whose backstory gets more fascinating the more you look into it—but frankly stops mattering when you're there, because when you're confronted with a $5 bowl of noodles this tasty, it all kind of blurs together anyway.
I can't stand under-descriptive menus, but overly verbose ones can be just as bad; you know those menus that practically spell out what you're supposed to taste? Biang! (like Xi'an Famous) has a way of taking what to many is unfamiliar fare and telling you exactly what you need to know—"spicy and sour diced pork belly meat, spiced with star anise, with wide hand-ripped noodles" communicates everything except the massive portion your meager $6.50 will get you.
It is pretty exhilarating to open a menu and see an entire first page listing $3 starters. The best of these was the zī rán yáng ròu chuàn ($3), bits of lamb heavily seasoned with cumin and chilies and grilled over an open flame. (You smell cumin just walking into the restaurant, which is not at all a bad thing.) The lamb nubs get a gorgeous crust on the outside, the fatty bits essentially liquifying as you bite into them—these are the ones not to miss. Xi'an is traditionally good with wheat gluten—spongy little squares of it play a part in some of their noodle dishes; the zī rán kăo miàn jīn ($3), seitan "sausages," get a little tougher than we'd like on the grill, but are well-seasoned and totally satisfying as a vegetarian option. The má là shuàn níu dŭ ($3), beef stomach skewers, were actually tender in comparison, boiled rather than grilled; and in a savory, sesame-tinged sauce with Sichuan bean paste, fermented tofu sauce, and chili oil—another skewer we'd highly recommend.
The easiest mistake (if you can call it that) to make at Biang! is to over-order, at least in our experience; because when I see a $2.50 tofu starter, I'm conditioned to expect a dainty, teacup-sized dish, not a bowl that could easily make a meal for a lighter eater. And the cháng ān dòu huā ($2.50) disappeared quickly in a flurry of spoon-scooping. It's not the silkiest, most custardlike tofu you'll find, but it's supple and clean-tasting and, with pickled Chinese vegetables and a characteristic sauce combo of chili oil, soy sauce, black rice vinegar, and dammit-what-are-those spices, a genuinely exciting bowl of food.
It's similar to a Xi'an tofu dish, but in that it's presented in a bowl rather than a takeout container, superior; other items at Biang! you'd never see at Xi'an Famous, such as the composed plate of xī yù kăo xiáo niăo ($6), quail. It's marinated and roasted, giving it crisp skin and tender flesh, and it's served atop another familiar element—the crunchy cilantro, scallion, green pepper, and celery salad that's one of the better things at Xi'an. (Is there any way to make plated quail look elegant? I've never seen its compact little body look anything other than stiff or awkward or vaguely obscene.)
With similar attention to presentation, the ān chŭn dàn ròu cháng kăo mó piàn ($5) arrive sporting quail eggs atop the pork sausage, each little yolk just set and ready to puncture, so that it soaks into the toasted mantou (steamed bun). You'd see a similar construction at a Manhattan tapas spot for $15/plate.
I love how at Xi'an Famous Foods, there's just a "lamb face salad" on the menu, whereas at Biang! they double down on your curiousity and tell it like it is: the liáng bàn má là yáng liăn ròu ($10) is listed as "Cooked lamb cheeks, tongue, eyeballs, and palate meat served with bean sprouts, cilantro, celery, scallion, cucumber; spiced with Szechuan pepper and proprietary spicy sauces." We'd translate it this way: "a happy tangle of crisp vegetables and chewy, or tender, or soft lamb bits, in an alluring spice mix with plenty of sauce." While the adventurous will have fun telling cheek from tongue, the rest of us can just be happy with various lamb pieces at this happy, humming level of spice.
Other Xi'an classics include liáng pí ($5), the "cold skin" wheat noodles; they're bouncy and tender, served cold and gently resistant to the bite, slicked in the fiery sauces that characterize nearly every dish here. (Chili oil is in 'em, and Chinese tahini and garlic and vinegar, star anise and cinnamon; and perhaps something else we can't identify, but I'm willing to let it go.) Squeaky, spongy squares of wheat gluten soak up those sauces, with cucumber, cilantro, and mung bean sprouts to freshen things up. You can get the same noodles at Xi'an, of course, but in this setting the value seems absurd; I don't know the last time I sat in a comfortable, air-conditioned, table-serviced restaurant and got this kind of portion of fantastic noodles for $5.
Also fantastically textured: the qiáo miàn liáng hé luo ($6), buckwheat noodles (smooth-edged but a little rough, a little bouncy) whose sandpaper edges help them pick up the chili-soy-vinegar-mustard oil, cut again with cooling cucumber and cilantro.
Still, I might prefer their hand-ripped noodles, ragged-edged and downright delicate, served in many incarnations but here, in the qí shān shào zi biáng biang miàn ($6), with bits of pork belly in a sauce both more sour and a bit spicier than others, with whole star anise pieces in there too. Try to snag a noodle with your chopsticks and you'll realize that they're longer and more tangled than really allows you to get one at a time ("Is it maybe just 2 or 3 really, really long noodles?" mused a friend, and that seems plausible.) This may be the first time I've seen noodles disappear with bits of pork left over in the bottom of the bowl. It's a clue to Biang!'s strengths: composed dishes, novel spices, noodles of all sorts, but not necessarily meat on its own. The là zhī niú wĕi ($10), for instance, oxtail rounds stewed on the bone, were pleasant enough to gnaw on but lacked the excitement of many other dishes.
Like the qiáo miàn jiăo tuán ($5), one of the most downright fun dishes I've encountered in awhile. "Warm and thick all-buckwheat pudding" is sort of hard to envision when you read it on a menu, but it's a clingy, slightly elastic, almost bouncy mound of soft dough (am I making this sound appealing yet?) that's a little bit chewy but, thanks to the buckwheat, not totally smooth. It's pretty neutral on its own, but swipe it through the dipping sauce (there's spicy mustard oil in there, a little soy, and definitely more) and it's as alive with flavor as any of the other dishes. "Xi'an has many different types of grain-based foods," Wang told us, "and buckwheat is used in various ways, and this is one example." I like it, in a way, because it strips the middlemen out: a meal here is generally just well-textured things dragged through awesome sauces. And I love it.
A note on the service, which was friendly enough, willing to put up with our multiple orders and many questions; but dishes that arrived quickly weren't cleared until 45 minutes after we'd finished poking at them, extra silverware or napkins generally had to be requested 3 or 4 times, and our table wasn't cleared before the dessert course, leaving a few tremendously unappetizing bowls of congealed pork drippings we asked several times to be cleared. If there's one place Biang! could really step up its game, that's it.
Well, and the desserts, but that's largely a matter of personal preference. These are certainly characteristic of much of what you'll find in some parts of Asia, so if sweet soups and sticky-rice-with-various-sweet-things is your style, you might be quite happy. I found the dàn huā liáng láo zao ($2.50; sweet fermented rice egg-drop soup) on the bland side, and the "throw it all on there!" gùi huā fēng mì liáng zòng zi ($2.50; cooled rice cake) a bit perplexing. Nothing wrong with the zèng gāo ($3; steamed hot rice cake), though, with a barely sweet red bean and red jujube filling. I like this sort of dessert for the texture, and the hot rice cake struck at the right point of chewy.
There's a certain subset of food adventurers that tends to find cleaned-up settings almost offensive, as if table service and printed menus somehow inherently made food less enjoyable. To those purists, there are still plenty of limited-seating, counter-service Xi'an locations, and have at them. But I find no shame in appreciating a little more space, a comfortable table, and a waiter—especially because I generally order so much, my own two hands cannot contain it all.
There's also a tendency to assume that immigrant-populated neighborhoods aren't particularly modern or forward-thinking. But Flushing these days feels like a place of relentless middle-class modernity, and in that, Biang! is very much a product of its environment. At the restaurant, I found myself remembering this conversation between Gilt's Francis Lam and chef Eddie Huang a few weeks back (stop reading this and start reading that, if you haven't), about immigrants cooking the cuisines of their native countries and the question of authenticity. I agree with Huang in that where Xi'an and Biang! succeed is in the branding. They're not playing the orthodoxy game, and there are no claims of ambassadorial status—Wang is simply introducing his family's grasp of food and perspective to as broad an audience as possible. One that, in a way, includes himself. "I live in Flushing and would usually eat by myself," Wang told us; "but my eating options are limited to food courts or take out from 'over-rice' type of places." Biang! may appeal to a younger generation in Flushing because that's very much who one of its owners is.
Wang has managed to start franchising from a stand out of Flushing without compromise, without striking lamb face from the menu, without toning back the heat or upping the prices or changing what the stall has always done. And Biang! is proof that that concept can be taken one step further to a full-fledged restaurant. "Immigrants of our parents' generation have largely given up any hope that Americans will like their food," said Huang in that piece. But if Xian and Biang's food is any indication, a new generation might be more amenable.
In short, Biang! is worth making a trip out to Flushing for. In part for the fascinating place it occupies in the food world right now. But in part, too, just for the noodles and buckwheat and lamb skewers.