There was a time when debates about whether Los Angeles or New York had the better Chinese food scene invariably came down to the knockout win for New York: “Yeah, but do you have a place like Xi’An Famous Foods?”
That Chinatown restaurant in Manhattan, elevated to greater prominence by the televised touting of Anthony Bourdain, features food from Shaanxi Province and its capital city of Xi’An. Years ago, no, we did not have anything like it in L.A. But, sorry New Yorkers, that time has long since passed.
Shaanxi Gourmet opened in Rosemead in 2011, followed soon after by an eastern San Gabriel Valley counterpart, Xi’An Kitchen. Then in 2014, Qin West opened in both Chinatown and Westwood, making Shaanxi cuisine available in the heart of Los Angeles.
But that's not all. Since last fall, three more Shaanxi-style places have opened in the San Gabriel Valley. Shaanxi Gourmet opened a second location, followed by the openings of Xi An Tasty and Shaanxi Garden.
If you haven’t tried, or aren’t familiar with, Shaanxi-style food, it’s one of the most approachable of all Chinese regional cuisines, well suited even to the non-adventurous palate. While many of the dishes are spicy, they aren’t on a level of Sichuan or Hunan, and some of them have a dash of vinegar to provide another flavor note.
There are four signature dishes of Shaanxi cuisine, including what might be the original hamburger. Often appearing on menus in English as “Chinese hamburger,” rou jia mo is usually made from stewed pork and served on a split, dense bread. A much spicier version uses lamb meat liberally seasoned with cumin and topped with sliced green chili peppers.
Another distinctive dish in Shaanxi cuisine is ròu pào mó, beef or lamb soup with torn wheat flatbread (usually referred to as pita), which are sort of like a Chinese version of gnocchi. Then there’s liang pi, cold wheat noodles served with a small dash of vinegar, chili oil and drizzled with sesame sauce, which are good anytime of year but remarkably refreshing during summer heat.
One of the most unusual Shaanxi dishes is another noodle item, biang biang mian. Incredibly wide noodles, the width of a belt, are doused in chili oil and served in a bowl with scallions and bok choy. The name of the noodle, biang, also has the distinction of being the most complex character in Chinese, made up of 58 strokes.
Two terra cotta warriors sit outside Xi An Tasty, the restaurant perched above the Hong Kong Market in Monterey Park. Inside the restaurant, you’ll find all of the above-mentioned dishes except the cumin lamb burger. Hamburger with braised meat in preserved sauce is a unique item to Xi An Tasty, as is stir-fried cumin beef hamburger. Shaanxi Garden has the larger menu of the two, with sections devoted to Shaanxi specialties. Plus it has the lamb burger, listed as “Shaanxi Lamb, Cumin Bun.”
The next time someone from New York cites Xi’An Famous Foods as proof of the superiority of their Chinese food scene, here's a good way to end the debate: Let them know that L.A. now has not one, not two but — count them — seven great Shaanxi restaurants to choose from. Case closed.
Shaanxi Garden, 529 E. Valley Blvd., #178A, San Gabriel; (626) 787-5555.
Xi An Tasty, 127 N. Garfield Ave., #Y, Monterey Park; (626) 802-5966.