I know New Yorkers who get very exercised about the notion that the best Chinese food in the US can be found not in New York but in the San Gabriel Valley outside Los Angeles. Of course, the denial of this fact (which has been true for a long time now) is proclaimed most loudly by people who have never left New York; all New Yorker transplants to Los Angeles I’ve known who venture out to the San Gabriel Valley come to subscribe to it very quickly. Then again New Yorkers are a famously sensitive, vulnerable people and it is understandable that many of them have difficulty dealing with a shift in one of the beliefs that is a cornerstone of their identity.
Accordingly, I am pleased to be able to tell them (for I would never want to upset such delicate people) that when it comes to food from the province of Shaanxi, New York had the first prominent restaurant: Xi’an Famous Foods. Shaanxi Gourmet only opened in the San Gabriel Valley, in Rosemead, about four years ago; since then the menu and the space has expanded and it’s very quickly become a sensation among diners looking to expand their knowledge/experience of the Chinese regional repertoire. I have seen a report that there’s been an ownership change and price increase somewhere in there as well but I’m not sure when that happened.
Now, if your knowledge of Chinese political geography is as poor as mine, you’ll need to know that Shaanxi is north and slightly east of Sichuan. Confusing matters slightly is the fact that it’s located just south and west of Shanxi province. Further confusing matters is that it’s officially part of the Northwest China region even though it’s pretty central on the map (this doubtless conveys some information about Chinese cultural/political geography and history). What I do know is that this is the province that is home to the terracotta warriors and that it was here that Jet Li rose from the dead to battle Brendan Fraser. As you can see, I have not yet finished my degree in northern Chinese history and culture. I am obviously not qualified at all to make any larger pronouncements on the characteristics of Shaanxi cuisine, and how it compares to that of neighbouring provinces I know even less about. And so I am not going to pretend that I am. I am merely going to describe the meal we ate and anyone who knows more or can point us to reputable sources of information should please fill us in.
We ate with Sku and his family and there were eight of us total. While our 6.5 yo and 4 yo are making some strides, Sku’s daughters (who are older) are very adventurous eaters and so we ordered quite a bit.
What We Ate (I am using the English names for the dishes on our bill)
- Cold Steamed Noodle: This was simple but quite nice. Noodles in a vinegary, slightly spicy dressing sitting on what looked like it might be boiled dough (don’t quote me on this). We also ordered a non-spicy iteration for the benefit of some of the kids. There’s also a version with sesame sauce.
- Shaanxi Sandwich with Pork: Some call it a burger but if you expect one you’ll be disappointed; but if you’re not expecting one you’ll like the sandwich of unleavened bread and seasoned, shredded pork that shows up. We had two orders of this. It was decent enough.
- Grilled Lamb Skewers and Chicken Heart Skewers: Cuminy, slightly spicy and very nice. Also available in a non-spicy iteration for members of the party that would prefer it that way (we got one of each for both).
- Fish Skewers: What shows up is a whole grilled fish, seasoned more or less the same way as the lamb and chicken hearts. Also quite nice.
- String Beans with Chef’s Special Sauce: Ordered mostly for the kids; good enough.
- “Pita Bread Soaked Lamb Soup”: This is a classic dish of the region I’m told and doesn’t actually involve pita. It does involve chunks of unleavened bread with a lamby broth, served with chilli sauce and garlic to spice it up. Very nice and would go over very well in the Minnesota winter.
- “Kudaimian”: Now, I’m pretty sure that what we ordered was the biang-biang mian, but the bill says kudaimian, which as far as I can make out is a different type of noodle. I’m not sure which one we actually got though, so if you can i.d the dish from the picture below, please help us out. Whatever it was, I was not very moved by it.
- Chicken Stew with Potato: Now this I really liked. This is a massive plate of chicken in what for all intents and purposes is a curry preparation. I mean, you could serve this as is to most Indians and they would accept it as a slightly funky chicken curry. As a result I wanted to put it over rice but our waiter seemed to think we were crazy for mentioning it. We figured out why when we got to the big pile of noodles hidden under the chicken. And oh, the whole chicken’s on the plate, down to the head with the eyeballs in them.
Pictorial Evidence (click on an image to launch a larger slideshow)
All of this came to about $135 with tax and tip. Service/ambience is about the usual SGV minimalist. A nice meal, on the whole, and a good change-up from our usual Chinese obsessions. I’d like to come back but I’m also curious to know if there are now other Shaanxi contenders in the SGV. Do you know?