Xi'an Sizzling Woks: Noodle house par excellence, touched by the Mideast
It only took a couple thousand years, but the flavors of Xi'an, home to the "Terra-cotta Army" and the origin of China's ancient Silk Road, have finally wended their way to Philadelphia.
And they've landed at 9th and Arch Streets with a biáng. As in the heaping platters of biáng biáng, the wide, chewy, straplike noodles that tangle with rustic chunks of chicken in a red gravy rife with fistfuls of red chiles and potatoes. Potatoes? In a Chinese restaurant?
Well, you know from the minute a plate of barbecued lamb skewers hits the table at Xi'an Sizzling Woks in Chinatown that this isn't your dad's old Cantonese chow mein joint. It isn't his Hong Kong duck house, either. Or even your cool-kid friend's latest Sichuan obsession.
No, that spray of kebab sticks, threaded with jewels of tender lamb, radiates a toasty perfume of cumin, evoking the Muslim influence that found its way to Xi'an in western China along the Silk Road from points west. And they are simply magnetic.
The so-called "pita" bread here (a Middle Eastern influence?) is another likely surprise to those who thought they knew Chinese food. It comes with a spectacularly earthy soup called pao mo, the flatbread ripped into bits that soak into a simple but soulfully steeped broth of lamb and beef. Legend has it the first emperor of the Song dynasty added the soup to imperial menus more than a thousand years ago, after sampling it from peasants on the street.
As the fall chill settles into Philly's bones, I can think of few bowls I'd want more than this bread-thickened porridge, which makes me wonder whether Marco Polo also brought the idea for ribbolita back from China with those noodles.
A freshly griddled, softer version of that pita, called mo, is used for the English-muffinlike bun in Xi'an's "Chinese hamburgers," which come stuffed with spicy bits of minced pork (a little fatty) or chunks of cuminy beef (wish all my burgers had cumin.) If these are slightly more familiar, that's because you may have had them a block north at the Happy Noodle Bar, which opened on Race Street months before Xi'an Sizzling Woks replaced Szechuan Tasty House last spring. Or maybe you downed one before hitting the craps table at Revel, where Jose Garces' Yuboka stuffs them with spicy lamb stew.
The sudden vogue of these specialties - along with tangy liang pi noodles and those biáng biáng – isn't entirely coincidental. Xi'an (pronounced she-on), the capital of Shaanxi province, was not considered a gastronomic magnet in recent history, according to Nina Simonds' authoritative China's Food, published in 1991. But more recently, the popularity of New York's Xi'an Famous Foods has stoked enthusiasm from those in search of the next regional darling, now that we're fully numbed by Han Chiang's Sichuan heat.
Sizzling Woks' owner Xinping Wang had even named his restaurant Xi'an Famous Foods - until he heard from the New York restaurant's lawyer.
Devotees of the New York restaurant at my table nitpicked that Wang's handmade liang pi "skin noodles," hand-pulled into delicate, white ribbons from wheat starch, were not quite as al dente as those at the original. And you will not find any of Famous' "spicy lamb face" dishes here, either. Yet.
But Wang's liang pi are still more than legit, especially with the bright, vinegary tang that soaks the spongey strips of house-made wheat gluten also layered with bean sprouts on top. It is that extra element of sour on top of heat, Xinping's son, Jie Wang, says, that distinguishes Xi'an's spicy cuisine from nearby Sichuan.
And in the context of Philadelphia, this restaurant has a long list of dishes that make its bare-bones dining room a destination for those on the hunt for distinctive flavors.
Some of them are simply great renditions of other Chinatown favorites - like the exceptionally fresh scallion pancakes that are a puffier counterpart to my other favorite (Sakura-Mandarin's sheer and flaky rounds.) Sizzling Woks' plate of bok choy and soybeans is one of my new citywide favorite greens, the chlorophyl still vivid in the mound of shredded cabbage and edamame, perked just enough with a touch of sesame.
Some typical American favorites - a simple, fresh wonton soup and a General Tso's chicken with real zip ($1 extra for white meat) - should keep the less-adventurous eaters at the table happy.
The Sichuan flavors are decent enough - dumplings in a multicolored swirl of sweet, dark sauce and orange chili oil; and the spicy tripe-and-tendon salad – but the slightly dull dandan noodles will remind you these really aren't why you come here, despite this room's previous operator, and its legacy as one of the area's first good Sichuan eateries.
Come for the spicy, pickled wood ear mushroom salad, or the chive pies, or the oversized, half-moon dumpling pockets stuffed with peppery greens, rice noodles and eggs. Try the unusual Xi'an pancakes - crepes rolled around perfectly seasoned potato shreds, with a sour soy dip.
If you're with a crowd, share one of the beautiful hot pots, which, unlidded at the table, release an aromatic cloud that turns the entire dining room your way. The fragrant Sichuan heat of the ma la pot is a brow-mopper, and it's filling with fish and translucent yam noodles. But I preferred the house-special casserole, which included a bit of everything (chicken, fish, beef balls) in a more subtle broth. My favorite bowl? The Song Sao soup, a golden broth filled with minced white fish that basks in the dual notes of earthy dried mushroom and sparkling ginger.
The noodles, though, are Xi'an's heart and soul. And the biáng biáng are my winners, including an appetizer rendition with a simple ginger-scallion and chile sauce that lets them shine.
They are best served, though, as a hearty anchor, and the prize is noted under the chef recommendations as "sauteed spicy chicken and noodle."
A Mongolian dish also known as da pan ji ban mian (or "big plate chicken"), it arrives on a saucy, heaping platter worthy of its name. It's rustic chunks are not for the boneless breast crowd. But the rust-red gravy, assertively spicy but also rich with hot bean sauce, is addictive - especially with potatoes.
And it turns out China is now the world's leading producer of spuds - a modern development. It's somehow fitting, though, to discover this unexpected detail of one food staple's circuitous journey amidst all the other revelations at a restaurant inspired by the old Silk Road.
Jie Wang, the owner's son, discusses Xi'an Sizzling Woks at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Avenue Delicatessen in Lansdowne.