Xi’an Famous Foods in New York City is becoming a phenomenon. Critics rhapsodize about its strictly authentic cuisine from the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, the country’s ancient capital and former gateway to the Silk Road. The restaurant’s most popular dish is its cold skin noodles, which are only $5. Served at room temperature, the noodles are made from hand-pulled wheat flour, cubed seitan, mixed veggies and a secret sauce, based in vinegar and soy sauce.
Critics from outlets like The New York Times and Village Voice can’t get enough, and the Queens flagship has added three locations in recent years, with plans for more. “I go there all the time, I love it so much,” Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s hit series Bizarre Foods, told The Wall Street Journal. “You could dip a day-old shoe into [their] chili oil and stuff it with roasted lamb, and I would still eat it and love it.”
Jason Wang, BSBA ’09, is at the center of the operation. Though his father, David Shi, founded the restaurant, Wang has helped it expand, using skills learned in his marketing and entrepreneurship classes at Washington University. While still a student, he created the shop’s website and quickly set his sights on modernizing its customer experience.
“At first the menu was all in Chinese, but I changed it so it was laid out in an easier way, with English titles,” Wang notes. “The basic things I learned at Washington University about pricing, publicity, merchandising and customer behavior are invaluable. One thing Olin Business School faculty taught us was the danger of information overload. Sometimes customers have too many things to choose from.”
Xi’an Famous Foods’ first location was a “hole in the wall” in a Flushing mall, and its original customers were mainly Chinese immigrants. But, spurred by glowing write-ups from bloggers, it quickly became popular with foodies city-wide. Wang attributes the restaurant’s success not just to the entrées, but to the recent explosion in food culture across the United States. “Even at Washington University, we liked to talk about food and watch food shows on TV,” he says. “It’s a process of people discovering and enjoying things from all over the country.” Today, food devotees pride themselves on seeking out the most interesting, cutting-edge and authentic meals they can find, and Xi’an Famous Foods stands out.
One thing, however: Don’t come expecting wonton soup, or beef and broccoli. “So many other places offer those items,” Wang says, “and [besides], beef and broccoli is not really popular in China.” In fact, the chain’s commitment to capturing the old-country experience extends all the way to its cashiers, who are mostly non-English speakers.
Wang lived in Xi’an (pronounced “she-an”) until he was 8, when he first moved to the United States. Having previously worked in Chinese restaurants throughout the United States, Shi opened the first Xi’an food stall in 2006, which later was branded Xi’an Famous Foods. His masterstroke was incorporating old family recipes for mixes and sauces. To this day, all of the restaurant’s dishes — everything from lamb with noodles to vegetarian items and even burgers — use some variation of them. Some of the mixes contain as many as 30 spices, and the recipes are kept strictly secret. “We continuously change things as we see fit, but for the most part they’ve been constant for generations,” Wang says.
Yet for all of his love for tradition, Wang has helped reinvent the company’s operations. Xi’an Famous Foods is currently set to open a central kitchen in East Williamsburg, which will support restaurant expansion. He adds that they hope to open locations outside of New York before long, and that they have even considered a shop on the Delmar Loop in University City, Mo. He also plans to develop frozen branded-products for grocery stores. Though it might be awhile before that happens, Wang remains confident about this next step. “It’s just a matter of how long until we get there,” he says.
For more information on Xi’an Famous Foods, visit xianfoods.com.
Ben Westhoff, AB ’99, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.