Looking for a cheap, quick dinner before the Built to Spill show at Irving Plaza on Wednesday night, Xi'an Famous Foods on St. Marks was the obvious choice. I've been a regular at the newest outpost since it first opened in late June (I was there on opening day for my free pork burger too-- yes I'm very special-- now who wants to touch me?).
I met my friends Dave and Eric at my apartment for a few pre-show beers before heading down to Second Avenue to look for a cab. The competition was vicious. An elderly couple jockeyed for position with younger businessmen while every cab going downtown was full of passengers. We pulled our first karmic dick move of the night by walking up a block, sidestepping our fiercest competitors. The second occurred soon thereafter, when Dave hailed a cab going down a side street while a guy our age watched helplessly at the corner. He really should have said something, but this is NYC, so anything goes. We did have to circle back around and got stuck in some hellish traffic on our way downtown, so our fare was an extra five dollars. That was plenty of karmic comeuppance right? Either that or we figured Dave would get hit by a car to balance out the universe.
Xi'an was crowded when we arrived at around 8:45, but emptied out by the time we got our food (allowing me to eat without someone's ass/groin parts in my face). Even though the aesthetic at Xi'an St. Marks can be described as bare, it's still leaps ahead of the other three locations in terms of decor (although the one in Flushing Mall is fairly nice). Where liang pi noodles were once served in a grimy basement to those in the know (plus me, a total late-comer), now the line on St. Marks is full of people with less adventurous palates looking for an entry into one of the more exotic regional Chinese food available in New York City. Yet the owner Liang Pi, and his son, Jason, are shrewd. The original location in the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing has no pretentions whatsoever, but the St. Marks outpost, with it's wooden walls and twentysomething white guy counterman wearing a Castro-style army hat, wouldn't feel right anywhere else (and with the opening of two Manhattan branches, the Flushing original probably now has the exact clientele in its pre-Bourdain days).
In line stood a Chinese girl with a pale guy in a fedora and canary yellow dress shirt who extolled the virtues of the lamb burger, and only the lamb burger. Yet she wouldn't eat lamb, and he wouldn't touch anything else (so much for expanding your palate).
Behind them waited a jumpy Vietnamese dude who tried to burnish his foodie credentials to the counterman and anyone else within earshot. The counterman looked exhausted (and slightly annoyed) for having to listen to the same spiel 50 plus times a day. Most of these conversations start similarly, with someone saying "I read that..." or the vaguer "apparently," before continuing into sometimes half-knowledgeable gibberish about an untasted ethnic delight. I'm guilty of it myself, but I'm at least aware enough (or self-conscious, possibly) to know that I sound like a pretentious idiot while explaining the "genesis" of Xi'an to Dave and Eric.
Since they were both Xi'an virgins, I steered them towards the cold skin and cumin lamb noodles (both ordered very spicy) plus a pair of pork burgers. With Dave and Eric picking my usual dishes, I opted for the lamb spine and the buckwheat noodles (I've been deficient in my spine-eating lately). The three of us squeezed into one of the two small tables inside and waited for our food. I sipped on some kind of a health tea drink from the fridge that I immediately regretted purchasing (mistaking it for the sour tea). I can't even describe the flavor (I have zero frame of reference). Though it was interesting at first, it soon became cloying until I couldn't even finish it. Who cares though, the noodles were as good as ever.
If you go with a group (or even by yourself), make sure you get a lamb spine (Serious Eats NY has some very good pictures in their review). I was worried it would be-- I guess the word is "overstewed"-- but it was fantastic. Tender strips of gamey lamb take legitimate chopsticking skills to recover (or just go all-in and eat it with your hands), and the juicy marrow is only a chopstick-poke away. If it weren't for the concert, I would have taken this home with me and eaten it over the course of the next day. Buckwheat noodles were fine, but compared to the liang pi noodles, the choice is a no-brainer.
It's easy to reflect on the fact that, even just a year ago, it would have been unthinkable to see a white dude assembling liang pi noodles. Does that make it less authentic? Whatever. I'm sure most people, including myself, could care so long as it's good. Plus, the appeal of an expanding empire of Xi'an Famous Foods is undeniable, and the quality of the food hasn't fallen off (this is starting to sound just like the end of my Shake Shack post). Either way, I can't think of a better way to spend $4.50 in Manhattan right now.
Xi'an Famous Foods
81 St. Marks Place (btwn 1st and 2nd Ave)