I started eating the noodles at Xi'an Famous Foods when the restaurant was a small stall in a dingy basement mall on Main Street in Flushing.
I remember the cold skin noodles were spicy enough to make my lips smart a little, and each strand of noodle so oily that it seemed to slink into my gullet. The stand was small and makeshift. Cold skin noodles were four dollars a plate and it was difficult to venture from option #1 when it was hitting all the right spots. So I didn't.
For a while, I went to the Flushing location every week. I was surrounded by Chinese people, everyone hunkered down over bowls and plates, and speaking not only Mandarin and Cantonese, but also the lesser known dialects of China. A lot of the customers were lone men dressed in careworn clothing, maybe not too many months or years out of China, and they were eating as if they were beyond ravenous and this meal would have to fuel them for the next long stint of their already long workday, which was probably the case.
Then I started going to the location on East Broadway. The place was even smaller than the Flushing location, where there were at least tables set up by the cooking area. Here, you could stand at a rickety counter alongside the wall. One time I took an old friend, a fellow noodle snob, to that location. He and I ordered not only the cold skin noodles, but the lamb burgers, and the tofu, and the tiger vegetable salad, and we took our leftovers with us in flimsy plastic bags, with all that soup and those spices sloshing about. By the time we reached my apartment in Brooklyn, the bottoms of the plastic bags were heavy with oil, like neon-red oily udders. It was very upsetting, all that wasted oil and sauce.
Fast-forward one year. I make the connection that the restaurant chain hasn't been boastful all these years, as I first assumed, about how famous is their food. The sign properly understood might read, "The Famous Foods of Xi'an," and they are but a humble peddler of what the region is known for. I make this realization as I'm eating at the location in the East Village, which is filled with NYU students, young professionals, and more non-Chinese clientele than I'm used to seeing at a Chinese joint. The walls are painted new and noodles are marked up by twenty-five or fifty cents. There's hip-hop music playing on the speakers. The times, they are a'changin', I thought, and with it, my taste for their noodles. It's not that the cold dressed noodles were any less good, but I must have hit my saturation point on that front.
For months now I have been unable to bring myself to order the cold-skin noodles. Instead I have been eating the other wheat noodles there. Unlike the cold skin noodles, which are always served cold, the other wheat noodles at Xi'an FF are warm: either dry with oil and spices, or in a dark and savory broth that comes with pickled mustard greens. If I had to choose between the soup or the dry form, I'd choose the latter, because I think the concentrated oil and the broth does a better job of soaking into the noodles. But if you are in the mood for soup noodles, you will not be disappointed.
In both cases, the noodles are al-dente, irregularly shaped, and doughy but not undercooked at all. They are, in other words, near perfect. For the dry noodles, the sauce has plenty of chili oil, soy sauce, and a mixture of spices (star anise, maybe cinnamon, and maybe cloves) that makes each bite exciting to eat.
It's not often that a place excels at even one type of noodle, not to mention two.
And these days, my location of choice for Xi'an FF is their establishment on Bayard in Chinatown. It is basically the same as the one in the East Village—a little bigger, maybe. Yet there is one big difference that sets apart this location from all the others. They have a bathroom. Yes, that's right, a bathroom. They have a key that is attached to a gigantic plastic toy hammer, and the bathroom is located not in the restaurant proper, but in the hallway of the building. The first time I opened the door to the hallway I was jolted by the dark musty atmosphere not uncommon in tenement buildings.
So what if the bathroom was messy and in the middle of a kaleidoscopic hallway? It is there, an admission that having an eating establishment without a bathroom is like inviting guests into your house without offering any outlet of that kind: it isn't gracious, it isn't proper. It's a big deal to me, and to a lot of other Xi'an FF fans, I'm sure.