Xi'an Famous Foods | 88 East Broadway #106 | New York, NY 10002 | www.xianfoods.com
WELL, YES, supposed to be cold in winter. New York City excels in having the best and worst climates of each season. Today was one of those very dry, chill-to-the-bone days where even the slightest wind went right through you. The kind I've spent my entire life never quite getting used to but accepted as authentic.
And so it was this day that I headed downtown to check out some authentic Chinese food from a place called Xi'an Famous Foods, which got a feature mention in the last season of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the video of which you can watch here. I had been on a Asian kick, recently, and had this lace on my radar since I first saw that No Reservations episode. I had also wanted to try some offal, the parts of animals that usually get discarded in more conventional dishes, but are very much part of indigenous foods all over the world, even here in America (hello, chitlins!).
I made the mistake of leaving my apartment without the exact address and without one glove. I called 411 and after two very frustrating conversations, realized that the phone company's Information service is headed the way of the dinosaur. They had no listing in their database for a XI'AN FOODS, and when I informed them that I had just seen their address on their website, they retorted that they didn't have internet resources available to them, so they really couldn't help me. From now on, instead of using the phrase "What's the 411?", I'm going to start saying, "What's the SER (Search Engine Results)?"
While riding downtown on the 6 train, I smartly assumed that the place had to be somewhere in, by, or near Chinatown, so I chose to ride all the way down to Canal Street. Once back on street level, I called my trusty neighbor, Gina, who did jump online and give me the address: 88 East Broadway. She had to help me navigate the short series of connecting streets and avenues to get me close to my destination, all while holding this cold metal phone to my face with my ungloved hand.
On my way, I navigated corridors jampacked with people, either hoping to get some post-holiday cheap shopping done, or tourists who unfortunately don't have even an idea of a Chinatown in their home town. This part of Chinatown was skeptically absent of Chinese people, as shoppers and tourists bustled to but easily marketable tchotchkes.
(Those miniatures were actually pretty impressive, each about an inch high.) Happily, I got to enjoy some nostalgia as well while I ambled through the neighborhood. I came across the city-famous Chinese restaurant Wo Hop, a favorite of New Yorkers for decades, especially those of u who would patronize the place post-clubbing, heading sub-street level for the boisterous loud, bright room around 5 o'clock in the morning.
I also came across Manhattan's most authentic (non-cart) dim sum place, Dim Sum Go Go, which my foodie partner, Trixie, and I enjoyed for the first time over a year ago, sampling a great variety bite-sized morsels and sampling a very indigenous and upscale shark fin soup, rich, textured, and flavored in fascinatingly unique ways, although maybe too much for a first try since it was a bit too outré for either one of us to finish.
As I walked farther east, I noticed the demographic of pedestrians was starting to change: less Anglo-, more Sino-. No more curio shops or $3 belts, but lots of markets, stores, shops with nary an English word on them, including this underground market that was buzzing with so much traffic that I had to wait a full two minutes before I had a free second to snap off a photo.
The restaurants, as well, were busy with predominantly Chinese customers, many of the restaurants displaying foods I could hardly identify, short of a restaurant on a corner featuring authentic Peking Duck.
I finally got to 88 East Broadway—right underneath the Manhattan Bridge—and was still hard-pressed to find the storefront. After another phone call to Gina, and surveying around the corner of the under-bridge building complex, I finally witnessed the storefront I had seen earlier online myself.
The space is surprisingly tight; you couldn't fit more than 5 people in there at once. Which meant, of course, no tables (they do seem to have larger spaces in the two other Xi'an Famous Foods in Queens), and counter space for only two people. The kitchen is just as small, so when three other customers came in, it is, and feels, packed.
Their menu breaks down into seven categories: Cold Noodles, Burgers, Soups, Hand-Pulled Noodles in Soup, Hand-Pulled Noodles in Soup, Cold Dishes, and Other Specialties. I first decided on the Pork burger, since this has been the year on pork inside a bun, and the lamb offal soup, since it seemed to be one of their more authentically genuine comfort (another 2009 trend) food.
The pork was delicious, nicely yet simply spiced, and served in a freshly toasted bun which, like their hand-pulled noodles, they make from dough they make in-house. The spice was quite nice, as it's layered flavor consumed the mouth immediately, while the heat started slowly on the tongue, then proceeded, in stages, through the back of the mouth, down the throat, up through the nose and head, then finally through the chest and shoulders. Bone chill? Officially gone!
The lamb offal soup, which I asked for extra spicy, was a jolt of spicy, sour joy. The aroma had some gaminess from the lamb bits, but possessed a greater bouquet of the vegetables and spice, with all the of the feature texture being supplied by the, yes, tender yet toothsome offal parts. And the sourness, provided by both some of the herbs and the slight gaminess of the lamb, reminded my how much the mouth has taste buds to enjoy these very flavors, although they are so unpopular in this country that most Chinese restaurants in this country keep their otherwise locally-favored sour dishes off of their Americanized menus.
Before I could even ask, the proprietor/cook suggested I try one of the hand-pulled noodle dishes, and I could hardly refuse after he demonstrated the centuries-old, generationally passed down, hand-pulling technique, which was definitely cool to watch!
I asked him to make a home-style version of his cold hand-pulled noodle dish, and I watched him put it together in front of me.
He slid it on a plate for me, and it looked just as appetizing, if not more so since I had a better idea of the flavor profiles were composed for these kinds of dishes.
The noodles were odd at first; they were a tad bit thicker and gummier than I expected. But after the first few bites, I started to enjoy the fact that the noodles, arguably more porous than more common noodles, were able to soak up more flavor—especially without the benefit of a thicker sauce or broth—while maintaining an enjoyable firmness in their bite. With the cool crisp vegetables and spice, this dish was able to be lighter than most noodle dishes, but still have that stick-to-your-ribs comfort and homey-ness and rounded-out flavors.
Including the can of Coke ($1), the Pork Burger ($2), Lamb Offal Soup ($4.50), and Cold Hand-Pulled Noodles ($5) didn't even come out to 15 bucks, and I had plenty left over of the soup and noodles to take home. It was cheap enough to even bring a friend, which I had planned to do, but then, at 2 o'clock, said friend asked to postpone until the following day—after making me wait until I had already skipped lunch—reminding me why I usually do these kinds of things (eating out, going to movies, etc.) by myself.
It also allows to me to do the things that are authentically me. So I see the foreign or art-house movies that I prefer. I eat parts of animals most of my friends wouldn't even want to look at. I don't have to compromise my true whims and fancies around another person's preference or schedule.
And get to take my time getting home, even in the dead of winter, freezing my right hand of as I do a little mini-photostroll walking my way to the nearest M15 bus stop, snapping pictures like this on the way.
And taking pictures of things that represent my personal outlook and introspection with, sometimes, the most mundane things, and finding something fascinating about them. Such as a billboard poster, or whizzing by Caracas, a Venezuelan restaurant on 7th Street that is a regular ding spot for me and Trixie, or a commuter's colorful wool hat, or the imagined prescience of a full moon fully visible at not even 5 o'clock on a late afternoon on New Year's Eve eve.
Happy New Year, PHUDE-ies! Be true to yourself in the new year, and Bun Apple Tea!
Xi'an Famous Foods | 88 East Broadway #106 | New York, NY 10002 | www.xianfoods.com