To close out Chinese Food Week, Eater presents the most exciting Chinese restaurant in America right now. Fueled by the fame of Xi'an Famous Foods in New York, Shaanxi Gourmet has caught on like wild fire in the West SGV. Shaanxi Gourmet is poised to do for Shaanxi cuisine what Jitlada has done for Southern Thai food in America. Here, we speak to chef Ma and restaurateur Qi about authenticity, expansion plans, and how to eat those spongy, cubed flatbreads.
So you're a bonafide Xian (two syllable word -- "xi-an") ren. Ma: Absolutely.
How long have you been cooking professionally? Ma: 22 years. I apprenticed since I was a child, learning from a local sifu. Qi: Both the head and second chef are from Xian. I'm from Xian. They both worked as embassy chefs, and served foreign dignitaries.
Tell us a bit about the cuisine here at Shaanxi Gourmet Ma: Xian was an ancient seat of government. Many an emperor resided there. "Pao mo" [cubed Chinese gnocchi], one of the current signature dishes, is good with lamb and is Xian street food. In ancient times, these were royal dishes, fit for empresses, but the cuisine eventually trickled down to the commoners and now you can find them all over the streets of Xian.
What exactly is difference between Shaanxi food and Shanxi food? Ma: Shaanxi is pungently spicy, salty pungent, sour and spicy. Shanxi is pungently vinegary. But sourness is also a flavor profile in Shaanxi cooking, we just use vinegar differently.
Let's talk about the new intestine dish just introduced. Ma: The story goes - a local Shaanxi farmer, being poor as he was, could only afford some pig intestine for protein. He happened to be "stewing" medicine in a crockpot, and he poured in the medicinal soup to stop the stink of the chitterling. Here, we replicate that effort by braising the guts with 13 herbs, then finishing them off in the hot wok.
Is this the dish you're most proud of? Ma: We're just starting off here with xiao chi [small eats], mostly street food items. But the menu is ramping up.
It seems you're already expanding? Qi: We signed the space next door. Hoping for end of November, you know America and regulations... Ma: After the new space opens, we will offer the 10 famous Xian dishes, and more, in addition to the small eats. Qi: Even though we call it "xiao chi," the bowl of soaked flatbread? It totally fills you up. And at that price! Can you believe it? You have to try it.
You should raise the price. By the way, how do you eat the pao mo? Qi: Do not mix everything into the soup. You only bring the cilantro and hot sauce into the bowl. Set them on top of the soaked dough, but don't mix. That ruins the lamb stock. Grab a bit of the dough, dab it into the hot sauce, then eat. Grab the pickled garlic with your fingers, take a bite after you eat some dough. Also, braised lamb is unique to that cubed dough soup. Takes two days to prep. And the new cold pork? We're featuring it at the intro price of only $2.95. This is the only place in LA, and maybe even in America, where you can get these dishes. Here [Qi picks up some noodly looking potatoes with chopsticks] are the best julienned potato strings [offered as a cold app from the deli counter] in LA. I've tried everyone else's. No one is offering the same flavor, the perfect transparency. It's all very very authentic. The only thing we can't offer to Xian ex-pats is the local soda. Even the machine that cubes the flatbread for the pao mo? Imported. Ditto to the uniforms.
Do you know Xi'an Famous Foods? Qi: Yes. We're not related.
They're from Shaanxi province, but not Xian city. NY reporters are already calling us, telling us we're blowing up! Xian cuisine rose to prominence during the Beijing olympics. Many of the atheletes were from Shaanxi.
So why not open earlier? You were in the restaurant biz before? Qi: Ran a restaurant in China for 11 years, but I didn't open because conditions weren't right. Had to find a good space, etc. I really had to understand the market here.
Is a restaurant here much different than in China? Qi: Obviously, in Xian all we had were Xian people. Here you have Southern [Chinese], Northerners. But... a restaurant is a restaurant.
And the Americans? Qi: The "Chinese hamburger" is an easy sell. Mostly though, they're just not accustomed to the flavors. The intestines [??, fei chang]? They aren't going to order that.
What's next? Even though you've only been open since September 29. Qi: We're waiting for our ABC. When it's approved, we will open until 2AM. Also, possibly Rowland Heights for the second branch. We're growing.
·All Chinese Food Week 2011 Coverage [~ELA~]
— Tony Chen