My father told me this story tonight over dinner. When he was visiting Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi, he would go eat at the local restaurants. He would order something that would translate as bread in soup. The server would bring out a couple pieces of round, flat bread to the table. He and his dining companions would sit around chatting amiably why tearing the bread into pieces. Because the bread was usually dense, it would take a while to tear up the entire bread. When they were done tearing, the server would collect each plate of torn bread, and take it back into the kitchen where the chef would stir fry the bread with meat (usually lamb), some cellophane noodles, and then pour broth over it. This bread soup would then be brought back to the table, and each person would get their own bowl, with the bread soaking up the soup. My dad liked it because each person could customize their bowl. If one person liked big, soggy pieces of bread, he could just tear bigger pieces. If another liked smaller pieces, he could do that.
Shaanxi Gourmet doesn’t follow this tradition, but their bread in lamb soup was still delicious in that rustic, food-of-the-people kind of way. If you’re one of those people who shy away from gamey pieces of lamb, this is probably not the bowl of soup your’e looking for. Shaanxi Gourmet’s bread (which they list as pita bread on the menu) is neatly and uniformly diced so that each cube of soaked bread has the perfect amount of chew. If I didn’t know beforehand it was bread, I would have taken it for cubes of boiled noodle-like dough. The broth is savory and rich with melted fat from the lamb. The meat falls apart as soon as your spoon touches it.
As if the lamb and bread soup wasn’t gamey enough, we also ordered another traditional Shaanxi dish, which the menu translates as a burger. There’s a pork version and a lamb version. I strongly recommend the lamb version for that wonderful, gamey taste. The bread is dense but soft and it soaks up the flavor of the tender, salty filling. The lamb is cooked to a moist and flakey soft consistency. If you’ve ever had really good carnitas, you’ll know what I mean.
Most of the tables had a big plate of brightly colored chili pepper and some type of meat. After asking the server what it was, we ordered the same thing, which they just translate as “Big Plate Chicken.” It really is a big plate of chicken — big enough to feed 3-4 people at least. The chicken is roughly chopped, then stir fried with large chili peppers, small chili peppers, onion, potatoes, and spiced with peppercorn and star anise. If you want to taste the flavor of the sauce, an onion or potato, soaking in the brown liquid is a good way to go. This sauce-loaded stir fry is then dumped over a plate of thick, chewy, round noodles. The noodles themselves have a fantastic texture, but after soaking up the flavor of the stir fry, they were just on another level. Be warned that this is definitely a spicy dish even though the menu makes no indication. As the lao ban niang says, “If you don’t make it spicy enough, then it’s not flavorful enough!”
While Shaanxi isn’t really well known for their vegetarian food, we were able to order two plates of supposedly vegetarian dishes for Will. The first one is by default vegetarian: noodles in sesame paste, like a simpler version of dan dan mian. The noodles were thin and flat and even though they were wheat noodles, they had the smooth chew and springiness of a rice noodle, which was great.
The second dish was ordered with modifications. The cat-ear noodle usually comes in a meat broth, but the kitchen offered to make it with a vegetable broth instead. Cat-eared noodles are first stir fried with vegetables like celery, bok choy, and wood-ear mushrooms. Then, the broth is poured on top with cellophane noodles. The extra step of stir frying gives this soup a strong, smokey wok flavor, which made it extra good. It was so good, we’re having doubts on whether this was 100% vegetarian or not. What we are 100% sure of is that the texture of the cat ear noodles were fantastic. You could really tell where the Italians got the idea of orecchiette from after having these noodles.
When one thinks of Shaanxi-style food, one probably doesn’t think of it as gourmet, which is why the restaurant’s name is so funny. In Chinese, the translation works better as “Famous Shaanxi Food.” I think of Shaanxi dishes as comfort or down home food that could be shared with friends while drinking some strong, home-brew liquor that puts hair on your chest. It’s the type of food you want to eat when it’s a brisk day in winter and the type of food that makes you feel all warm and satisfied inside, which is exactly how I felt after my meal here.
8518 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770