My family comes from Xi’an, the ancient capital of China.
Its claim to fame is the terracotta soldiers and the start of the Silk Road — a long trade route that stretched all the way beyond the Roman Empire. All that trade (the spices, the cultures) melded into a food culture unique to the region.
Today it’s a bustling city — fancy car dealerships and bougie hotels and restaurants and hidden speakeasies dot the city center. But I remember it as a dusty, quiet city, filled with trees and birds and crickets and mapped by the food: the Muslim Quarters for smoky lamb skewers; sticky and sweet mirror cakes sold in stalls by my school; spicy and starchy hu la tang for breakfast and tomato and egg noodles at the spot down the street. This is the place — and these are the flavors — that started it all.
My dad, David, was always a scrappy guy. It’s almost built into his generation, when being hungry was a fact of life and you had to hustle to get your hands on food.
It’s that scrappy, never-let-food-waste mentality that helped him get through the muck when we first moved to the United States. That’s how he ended up in the restaurant business, doing whatever he could to make ends meet.
His first jobs were as a dishwasher for a Chinese buffet restaurant, hopping on a bus for two hours to get an extra 60 bucks. He’d drag himself all up and down the east coast for weeks at a time, taking any job that would pay, crashing at boarding houses with other gig workers in the same boat.
But even in Chinese immigrant enclaves, the food of our hometown was nowhere to be found. So, he made it himself. When he wasn’t shilling orange chicken or prepping beef and broccoli for buffets, he’d be testing out new family favorites. Then, he’d come home and make some bombass fried chicken for me.
When he was ready to strike out on his own, he started small: first with a bubble tea shop, where the food soon outsold the drinks. Then, he put money down on a random enclave by a bus stop, literally a nook on the street without a door. He’d cook and prep at home, wheeling over the goods to serve out of his hole-in-the-wall to workers picking up a bite before their shifts.
Finally, in 2005, he earned enough to nab a stall in the legendary Golden Shopping Mall basement food court. Word spread. Business was good and steady. Then Bourdain showed up and things got a little crazy.
I was born in Xi’an, and like my father, developed a taste for spicy cumin lamb and noodles.
But when I was 8, we moved to the United States, swapping cumin lamb skewers for the chance to have a better life. That vision for my life included studying business at an American college, getting a white collar job, and never having to worry about working in a kitchen.
While my dad was on buses en route to his next cooking gig, I was head down in books, under pressure to get into a good college and, as a result, get a good corporate job. And for a while, all was going according to plan. I went to a college with a well-known business program, interned at tech companies, and finally got a starting position at a big corporation. I had all the ingredients to live my parents’ version of the good life.
But once XFF started, I couldn’t get it out of my head. At my dad’s shop, I had my first taste of liang pi in 10 years. The lamb noodles brought back memories of housing lamb skewers at the Muslim Quarters — the only thing I wanted to eat as a kid. So I knew my dad had hit on something big, and I knew I had to do everything I could to turn this business into a legacy.
So I took my college degree, my corporate training, my white collar dreams, and went back to the kitchen, starting from taking out the trash and slowly working my way up to cashier, line cook, and finally, manager. It took two years of 13-hour work days until my dad decided I was finally ready.
That company is this: Food first. REALLY good food, first. We still make our liang pi the old way, still hand-pull our noodles to order for that perfect bouncy bite. My dad is still in the kitchen personally making our chili oil, still getting burned when the oil gets too hot and wearing his burns proudly.
After my dad and I went into business together, we went full-steam ahead. We opened up a spot in East Village (photo right), tried out sit-down options, tested some new offerings, pulled some others, fought about menu items and trainings and the best way to cook dumplings. Then, and slowly, we figured out who we were as a company.
And he’s proud for a reason. His recipes, first presented in a tiny hole-in-the-wall, have brought lines down the block, television crews, restaurant critics, and many a foodie. They’ve necessitated baby strollers full of noodle sauce to be wheeled over to store locations in the dead of winter. Our fans camp out on our rooftops, hoard our chili oil packets, and order our noodle kits to be shipped across the country so they can have a taste wherever they are. And his brand has grown beyond just Queens, moving into prime Manhattan and Brooklyn spots, with 13 locations and more down the line.
Want in? Come on over. You’ll see exactly why we’re famous.
- Jason Wang
CEO, Xi'an Famous Foods