Jason Wang might be the CEO of a growing restaurant empire, but on a hot summer day in a small kitchen in New York City, his father David Shi is running the show. Shi cooks, reluctant to slow down for the camera, while Wang translates and answers questions about the always-popular spicy cumin lamb noodles at Xi'an Famous Foods.
For Wang, the spicy cumin lamb noodles are more than just a top-seller fueling his company's rise to fame. "It's so nostalgic," he says, recalling his childhood growing up in the midwest. "It was so hard to get those spices. We couldn't get lamb, so we'd make it with beef when we could. To me, the dish is really personal."
As such, the spicy cumin lamb noodles are a perfect reflection of Wang and Shi's goals for the restaurant group. "It's really about focusing on traditional Chinese food, not about any fad," Wang says. "We do it because this is our family recipe, this is something we believe in." Though the restaurant's recipes originate from the Xi'an province, Wang notes they've been filtered through the lens of his father's family cooking traditions.
It's always been about family. Just over 10 years ago, Shi started serving food to make his foray into owning and operating a bubble tea shop in Queens a bit more fulfilling — and the classic dishes of what would become Xi'an Famous Foods, including the spicy cumin lamb noodles, first found their audience. Soon Shi got himself a new space in Flushing and the restaurant was born. Freshly armed with a business degree, Wang joined the team, and the duo's meteoric New York City rise — including 12 locations, one sit-down restaurant called Biang!, a massive central kitchen where much of the prep work happens, and ambitious plans to expand throughout the region — is a better example of the American dream than most fiction.
That's not to say the two don't have their differences. "My father's always experimenting with new spices, sometimes much to my dismay. I like our products the way the are and I like to focus on consistency, whereas he's always looking to add new items to the menu and tweaking things," says Wang, with smiling sigh. "It's a constant struggle between us."
Below, the elements of the spicy cumin lamb noodles at Xi'an Famous Foods:
1. The Lamb
The process starts with shredded lamb chuck and shoulder. At the central kitchen, cooks use semi-automatic shredders, breaking down some 250 pounds of lamb each day and delivering the meat to the restaurants each night. "We're trying to modernize and automate more of the process that could be done by machine," Wang says. "Something like cutting meat is a no-brainer." The machine assistance also helps achieve a consistent cut. Below, Shi demonstrates how it's done by hand.
At the restaurants, the lamb is only marinated for a few minutes in rice cooking wine, to tenderize it a bit and take away some of the gamey flavor. Then, it's into the super-hot wok (after ginger and garlic go in first).
Next comes the onions and peppers. According to Wang, most of the "heartier" vegetables are chopped at the central kitchen, while other vegetables, like those used for garnishes, are chopped at the stores.
Then comes a generous portion of fragrant, freshly ground cumin and house-made chili oil, a proprietary — and intensely private — blend of 30 different spices so serious that when cooks make it, they need to wear masks and goggles. The importance of these two ingredients to the final product can't be overstated. "We put a lot of effort into making sure the spices are good," explains Wang, noting that "the spice sets it apart" from other cumin lamb renditions around the city.
By keeping the wok hot and uncrowded, the lamb should be crispy by the end of its three or four minutes. Constant shaking of the pan prevents burning. Since so many orders come through, the lamb is made in batches, and there's always a fresh batch ready to use.
2. The Noodles
"There's nothing special about it," Wang says, referring to the wheat flour that makes the base of the noodle dough: Wheat flour, salt, and water combined in the correct ratio, that's all it is. "The flavor isn't in the flour itself. The flour is just for texture. The flavor comes from the ingredients we add later, the sauces. Being that it's a wide hand-pulled noodle, it's able to envelop the flavors better, because there's more surface for the sauce to stick to."
The dough-making process is another step that's been "modernized." At the central kitchen, cooks mix and knead the dough with mixers. "It has to be by machine for the amount we make, otherwise your hands would fall off." Wang and Shi happily discovered making the dough by machine had some profound advantages when it came to consistency. But Shi can still make a dough by hand without even measuring his ingredients."It's just by feel," Shi says, as Wang translates, then adds his own commentary to his father's words. "He's bragging," Wang says as an aside. "'This is what it's called to be a professional,' he says."
3. The Assembly
While the dough is prepped and portioned at the central kitchen, noodles must be hand-pulled to order at the restaurants. "We're always on the lookout for employees trying to take short-cuts by pre-pulling," Wang says, not entirely kidding when he says he's considering installing cameras. The short-cut is tempting, but pre-pulling the noodles can result in a too-chewy texture.
When an order comes in, the "puller" springs into action. Each order gets two portions of dough. As Shi demonstrates, the technique involves slapping and stretching the dough by hand, and then splitting the dough into long ribbons. ("Like string cheese," says Wang.) Shi explains the slapping helps maintain the rhythm, keeps the dough an even thickness, and that it's "a habit, a tradition; the noodles are called 'biang biang,' they're behind the counter making the biang biang sound."
Immediately, the noodles go into boiling water, where they cook for about three minutes.
When the noodles are done, the "mixer" springs into action. The mixer's job is to finish the dish — pairing the noodles with the appropriate toppings in the correct ratios. Shi demonstrates how the noodles go into a small saucepan with scallion and chive.
Next, the cumin lamb gets added in, along with "noodle sauce," a Xi'an Famous Foods staple made from black vinegar, soy sauce, and "secret spices." Topping it all off are celery and blanched cabbage.
While it seems complex — and make no mistake, in many ways it is complex — the whole process from "order in" to "order up" should only take the puller and mixer five minutes, 10 minutes if the line is out the door. "I feel proud," Wang says, looking at the finished dish his father created for the photo shoot. "Two decades ago, I couldn't even have this. Now I can have it whenever I want, and so other diners in New York can, as well."