You know it’s a different kind of Chinese restaurant when there’s no rice on the menu. And Xian Kitchen (4690 Convoy St.) in the Convoy District is definitely that: a very different kind of Chinese restaurant. Thick and wide hand-pulled noodles? Absolutely. Rice? Not a grain.
There are 1.3 billion people in China spread over 3.7 million square miles. In contrast, there are less than 60 million people in Italy in just over 116,000 square miles. We are, however, quite comfortable with the idea of distinct, regional Italian cuisines. Any self-respecting foodie has a decent idea how Tuscan cuisine differs from Sicilian, how a Bologna bistro differs from a Neapolitan pizza place. How far down that road could the same foodie go about China? Other than some vague idea about Sichuan or Cantonese food, not far at all. But there probably wouldn’t be cumin in the dishes and there would surely be rice on the table.
The food at Xian is the cuisine of China’s Shaanxi province in northwestern China (Xi’an is its capital), best known for the tomb of China’s first Emperor, Qin Shihuang, and its vast army of terracotta warriors. Shaanxi cuisine tends to be somewhat heavy, strongly flavored and spicy, with big, wide hand-pulled noodles on nearly every table. For most, the first taste of Shaanxi cuisine is cumin lamb, a fixture on American Sichuan restaurant menus, though it is not Sichuan at all. The mutton (think older, stronger lamb) version at Xian is excellent, with savory, earthy flavors of the cumin (underlining the earthiness of the mutton) marrying the fresh, spicy chilies. It is an excellent introduction to Shaanxi food.
Hand-pulled noodles are a Shaanxi specialty and Xian’s are good. Biang biang noodles—named for the sound of noodle dough being “thwacked” on a chopping block—are fresh noodles served with ground chili oil, and they’re addictive. Xian offers the same noodles paired with braised mutton and baby bok choy in a broth, too. But, perhaps their best preparation is with braised beef brisket in an angry-looking ma la broth featuring the numbing and spicy combination of fiery, earthy chili peppers and tingly, flowery Sichuan peppercorns. They’re not dishes to share; separating these noodles is challenging.
One of the most surprising dishes was a plate of sautéed cabbage. Garnished with only a few dried chili peppers, the vinegar gave the dish a pleasing brightness. It was simple and perfect: nothing there that didn’t need to be, everything that did.
Not everything at Xian was that good. Unless you are an adventure eater, avoid the “Haggis Soup.” I’m an offal fan, but this was every part of the sheep you might question in a strong mutton broth. It was absolutely no better than it sounds. Xian’s service is uneven at best and disdainful at worse and, on more than one occasion, menu items were unavailable.
But avoid that “Haggis” soup and those are small prices to pay for the opportunity to try a regional Chinese cuisine that you probably never knew existed. And you will not miss the rice.