Monday, May 01, 2017

Xi'an Famous Foods, New York

In November 2016 I visited New York for the first time in years.  The first place I went to eat is far from where you'd ever expect.  I went to Xi'an Famous Foods, a fast casual chain restaurant serving Chinese food.  Um, yeah.  Yes, I was in New York for only two days, and this is what I choose for my very limited number of meals I'd have in the city.  And no, it wasn't because I like Chinese food, if that were the case, presumably I would have reviewed other Chinese restaurants by now.

There were reasons why we wound up here, I assure you.  A complicated set of constraints around timing, pricing, and location of the 4 other people who were going to meet up to dine with me.  A cheap casual place was needed, and Xi'an came recommended to me by a friend who used to live in New York (backed up by Yelp reviews, a Anthony Bourdain endorsement, etc).

When my friend first recommended Xi'an Famous foods, I looked up the website, and laughed when I clicked on the menu.  I was greeted by a popup warning.  Yes, a real popup, blocking my viewing of the menu.  The warning read:
Food tastes best when fresh from the kitchen. When hot noodles cool down, they get bloated, mushy, and oily. If you must take your noodles to go, please at least try the noodles in the store or right out of the to-go containers when it's handed to you, so you can get the best possible Xi'an Famous Foods experience."
At this point, I was nearly sold, as I appreciated somewhere that tried hard to make you actually enjoy their food optimally, and told my friend that I loved the place already.

Xi'an Famous Foods is a family run business, and has only been around since 2005.  It is actually a fairly cute story, a family from Xi'an (a city in China), with a father who owned a bubble tea shop, and a son who got his degree is business, and decided to co-found a new business focused around food, rather than tea.  It clearly worked, as they now have 12 stores in New York, with most of the food prepared in a central kitchen.

Xi'an Famous Foods is credited with bringing the cuisine of Xi'an to the US.  While likely not strictly true, they did at least get it more well known.   The menu consists of cold noodles, hand-ripped noodles, dumplings, soups, and burgers (no, not American style beef burgers).  I have no idea if the cuisine is authentic, but, they say it is.  Each menu section has a letter (aka, "N" for "Hand-pulled Noodles", "B" for "Burgers", uh "C" for "Soup"), and each dish within each section has a number.  So "B1" is the stewed pork burger (B for Burger, 1 for the first dish listed), N4 is the stewed pork hand-ripped noodles (N for Noodles, 4 for the 4th dish listed), etc.  The numbers are not contiguous, indicating that they do not re-use numbers when they discontinue a dish.  The numbers were prevalent all over the menu, and were a bit distracting, but, I guess for a busy location, and an establishment serving unfamiliar dishes, people prefer to order by number?  The menu also included, in caps, several times "*WARNING -TAKEOUT NOODLES WILL NOT TASTE AS GOOD AS FRESH ONES."  I think everyone got the message.

We visited the Midtown location, picked for the location, and, uh, the fact that it was close to a Momofuku Milk Bar, where I was already planning my dessert.  This is a newer location, only open for about a year.  I failed to take photos, but it was a simple establishment, no frills, and no tables.  Counter seats only.  The seats all faced a brick wall.  This was a bit unfortunate, as our group of 5 had no way to really talk to each other, which sorta defeated the purpose of meeting up for dinner.  Oops.  The website mentions that this location has two kitchens to handle the lunch rush, so my impression is that it is designed for busy business lunch traffic, but, uh, aren't people supposed to eat the noodles there?

We ordered at a register, and were given a receipt with a number.  When our food was ready, our number was yelled out, and we were to fetch it from the front counter.  Utensils were self-serve, and all disposable (chopsticks, plastic forks, plastic spoons).  One diner grabbed a (sealed) packet of chopsticks, and opened it to find that it had only one chopstick.  He went to get another packet, and it too had only one.  This could have worked out actually, given his other singleton, but, the second chopstick was also broken.  I think they need to do some quality assurance on their utensils.

My friend said to always get a burger and a noodle dish.  Well, specifically, he said to get the B2 and one of {N1, N2, N4, Ns2}.  I took his advice to get a burger and noodle dish, but didn't actually pick the items he recommended.  And I didn't particularly love any of it.  Perhaps that was my bad though, for not picking what he clearly told me to?  
Chrysanthemum Tea. $1.75.
Iced teas were pre-packaged, available near the register.  Not something I'd normally get, but Ojan wanted tea, and this was the only not caffeinated variety.

It was actually the highlight of the meal.   Lightly sweetened, very refreshing iced tea.  I really enjoyed it and I'm glad he got it (and let me mostly have it all).
B1. Stewed Pork Burger. $4.
"Pork belly meat, stewed and diced with its own juices, then packed into a warm and crispy flatbread-like bun."

Xi'an Famous Foods has two burgers on the menu, B2 (Spicy Cumin Lamb) that my friend said to get, and B1 with pork.  I know I was told to get the B2, but really don't like lamb, so I got B1, even though I wasn't particularly excited by the sounds of it either.

It was certainly not what I was expecting given the title "burger".

The bun was nothing like an American hamburger bun.  I liked the bun, it was something like a cross between a (very large) steamed bun and a flatbread, and I do love steamed buns.

The filling however was fairly dry and just porky.  It desperately needed a creamy sauce, a crunchy pickle ... something.  Maybe this is just me who likes my "burgers" loaded with add-ins, but this was just really boring to me.  Another diner added sauce from the noodles to his, and that at least added some moisture and flavor, but it was still pretty lacking.

For $4 though, a quite reasonable price, better than the equivalent at a fast food restaurant.
N5: Mount QI Vegetables Hand-Ripped Noodles.  $8.50.
"Our wide hand-ripped biangbiang noodles mixed with a "ratatouille" of vegetarian ingredients including but not limited to carrots, potatoes, wood ear mushrooms, bell peppers, and seitan, with a spicy (unless requested as not spicy) and sour sauce."

I was also instructed to get a noodle dish.  My friend told me to get the N1 (spicy cumin lamb), N2 (spicy & tingly beef), N4 (stewed pork), or Ns2 (spicy & tingly beef noodles in soup).  Except, I didn't want any of those.  I didn't really want soup, so that ruled out Ns2.  I don't like lamb, so that ruled out N1.  I was already getting stewed pork in the burger, so that ruled out N4.  Luckily I had plenty of options (9 types of hand-pulled noodles alone), but I basically just wimped out and went with the vegetarian option.

The noodles were crazy long, and a bit hard to deal with without a knife.  Fork and chopsticks couldn't really cut through these.  I honestly think some of the noodles were several feet long!  The noodles were very nicely cooked though, not mushy, not undercooked.  Very well executed.

The sauce was flavorful but very oily.  I didn't find it particularly spicy, so I'm curious what the less spicy (and very spicy) versions are like.

The veggie mix was fascinating. There really seemed to be ... everything in there.  I found potatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and cabbage, for sure.  I think I found eggplant.  And maybe turnips?  Lots of green onions.  Spongy chunks of what I guess was seitan, but seemed more like wheat gluten, and really did look like meat.  Digging through the veggies was a quest in amazement, I had no idea what I was going to find.  The veggies were all cooked perfectly, none too mushy, none raw, which was remarkable give how many types of veggies there were, and how they were all different sizes.

But, at the end of the day, I'm not really a noodles girl.  I can't really fault anything about the dish.  It was hot, the noodles and veggies were all prepared well, and there was flavorful sauce.  But ... I wasn't thrilled, and was eager to just move on to dessert.
Xi'an Famous Foods Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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