Spicing up the Tradition of Chinese Food in NYC
February 24, 2015

Chinese restaurants have long since become a New York classic. Here is an interior from early 1900. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

For many Americans Chinese culture is Chinese food. Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in America. More common than McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King combined, Chinese food has frequently adapted to American tastes. (Join us April 1st as reporter Jennifer 8. Lee follows this story further).

The story of the newly beloved Chinese restaurant chain, Xi’an Famous Foods, is a spicy retelling of a common story of Chinese immigrants and Chinese food culture in New York.  Xi’an’s story is a little different telling a tale of how American tastes adapted to traditional Chinese flavors.  Family owned by a father and son team, David Shi and Jason Wang, the restaurant was founded on dearly-kept family recipes but has gained a cult following, not only with New Yorkers with Chinese heritage but also a host of discerning diners.

Xi’an is a city in North Eastern China and was once the eastern most stop on the ancient Silk Road trade route.  The Silk Road facilitated the trading of silk for spices and untold other goods from China through the Middle East to the Mediterranean.  Beginning in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Silk Road was probably the most important cultural exchange of the 1,600 years of its existence. Like the internet – but much earlier. Xi’an benefited from a cornucopia of spices and the local cuisine predictably became refined, complex and delicious. Those delectable recipes survived till the 1970s when future Xi’an owner, Jason Wang,  was still in elementary school. Wang remembers growing up in Xi’an with his grandfather making Pao Mo, steamed buns soaked in rich lamb soup, and other delicacies for everyday meals and as the centerpiece for family gatherings.

For the most part Xi'an Famous Foods include spices and sauces that were handed down through the family. Some recipes have been adjusted to make foods a little more mild for white-bread palates. Photo courtesy of the Xi'an Famous Foods Instagram account.

When Shi moved the family to New York in the Mid 1990s they brought their secret family recipes with them, kept alive now partly by a nostalgia for home. It became clear that the Xi’an recipes Shi  was serving along side the bubble tea in his bubble tea shop were winning the praise of the Chinese community in Flushing, Queens. But once Shi and Wang dropped the bubble tea and opened the first Xi’an Famous Foods a funny thing began to happen. Not only did the Chinese community in the neighborhood flock to the tiny restaurant, but pilgrims from other boroughs and other backgrounds began to gather as well.

Xi'an Famous Foods buns being hand prepared for their famous spicy lamb burger. Wang's influence has partly been his extensive use of social media. This image is courtesy of the Xi'an Famous Foods's Instagram account.

With creative new-media outreach from Wang, extensive restraint experience from Shi, and a lot of hard work from both, Xi’an Famous Foods has become a robust little chain of restaurants. Wang has emphasized the importance of balancing the carefully guarded traditions with an expansive sense of generosity. Attendees are more likely to hear hip hop on the sound system than see traditional banquet hall decorations.  However, the sauce that is the key to the delicious Xi’an experience is still made at home by Wang and Shi with a special combination of over 20 spices. The experience has not been without its family-business style hiccups. Wang and his father sometimes clash though they are, by now, equal owners in the business. Shi sometimes asserts an attitude with which other Chinese sons and daughters may be acquainted: “father knows best”.

Their collaboration is largely a delicious piece of Chinese heritage that the whole city can celebrate.  In honor of the Chinese Lunar New Year Xi’an threw a bash at the Music Hall of Williamsburg raising money for the organization Apex for Youth. It was great New York party!

Tickets and promotional material for Xi'an Famous Foods' New Year's Party. Photo courtesy of Xi'an Famous Foods Instagram.

Keep your eyes on local listings, Chinese Lunar New Year events continue to take place all across the city.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator