Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
I visited a newish Chinatown spot called Xi'an Cuisine a couple of weeks ago, but neglected to mention it until I saw that Steve Dolinsky, a longtime and serious fan of Chinese food, had posted about it on his website. It's entirely my failing, because I found it to be an exciting and pretty accessible new place that offers an unfamiliar side of Chinese cuisine: the kind that comes inside a bun.
Xi'an is the capitol of Shaanxi province in the northwestern part of China and was pretty much the sticks until fairly recent efforts at industrialization and modernization—China's space program has major facilities there. In the past we didn't get a lot of immigration from that area compared to others, so we didn't see much of their food, but a New York restaurant chain called Xi'an Famous Foods started to introduce the cuisine to American foodies; I had a lamb and cumin sandwich thing at Chinese Traditional Bun, a noodles spot in Toronto that's at least partly Xi'an based.
I'm not going to claim any greater knowledge of Xi'an cuisine than that, but I can say one thing: Chicago's version is better than the one I liked just fine in Toronto, and they're all dirt cheap, so this is something you want to try. There's actually three different kinds listed under the title "Flat Bread" on the menu, though they're more like pita sandwiches than the mock pizzas that "flatbread" implies. There's a marinated beef one that was all right; a pork one that tasted a little like al pastor and was pretty good; and the lamb with cumin, which is great with its brightly spicy (but not superhot) ground lamb in bread that's been griddled like a panini. They're not huge, but they're only $3, so two would make a filling and happy winter lunch. (It's about two blocks off the red line, further down the same side of Cermak that's home to 50s-style Chinese staple "Little" Three Happiness.)
The flatbreads aren't the only items of note. In contrast to the usual Chinese menu of 500 possible combinations of the same 50 ingredients, Xi'an Cuisine has a short one-page menu of pretty distinct dishes, most of them fairly unusual in Chicago. Tofu noodles in hot oil, rubber-band-like strings of tofu in chile oil, are a novel texture. The pork belly in hot oil looked a lot more like pig ear that had been cooked long enough to be soft rather than chewy. You can also get a skewer of relatively tender chicken gizzards; their presence on the menu seems a bit mysterious when you notice that there's no other chicken on the menu.
Those were more in the nature of try-once curios to me, but I would happily reorder two dishes besides the flat breads. Sliced marinated lamb was similar to, but not the same as, the lamb sandwich's filling, and was tender with lots of flavor. And wide rice noodles in black vinegar and garlic sauce came to the table without the latter, but the sauces are in jars on the table; it's a hearty dish once it's doctored up.
Afterward someone mentioned to me that they'd gone there and found it hard to get them to serve the authentic dishes—maybe it was still carrying over traditional dishes from whatever old Chinese restaurant it replaced (it definitely has an old Chinatown interior). But by the time my friends and I went, they seemed used to large parties of camera-toting foodies, and there was no resistance to whatever we wanted from the one-page menu.
If there's an easier discovery to make in Chinatown, with a better payoff for less money, I want to know about it.