Cheap Eats: Lower East Side’s Xi’an Famous Foods

“Forget what you think about Chinese food,” advices the restaurant website. As a person of Chinese descent who spent time growing up in Mainland China, there is nothing I detest more than the American idea of Chinese food: it’s bland, it has carrots and baby corn everywhere, and the popular mispronunciations are too far of an ignorant imagining to ever be acceptable. And so I admit: I came to the US skeptical about Chinese food and never bothered to venture for more after the first few disappointments. That is, until I learned about Xi’an Famous Food.

Xi’an has a long history in culinary culture and has developed a unique cuisine with two culinary styles-the traditional and the modern, a fusion of Middle Eastern and Chinese foods. It is among the few non-Cantonese, non-Fujianese purveyors of Chinese food in the neighborhood. Gloriously gluttonous and bloody with hot chili oil, Xian food is the food of revolutions, wars and cold winters.

Like any other teeming Lower East Side joint, Xian Famous Foods pulls off that complicated, almost mystical combination of good food, reasonable prices and timing. Any customer that walks in must respect the restaurant’s rule of conduct: order, pay, take a vacant seat if there is one, eat, leave.

The place is more appropriately described as a food counter, as the restaurant cannot seat more than eight people at a time. I read the menu from plain unadorned signs stuck on the wall, marveled at their unintelligible dish names along with the mystic numbers attached to them – B1, A9, C35 – what could they mean? The cashier seemed impatient taking my order, but was alert and attentive. He pulled out a pre-packaged Chinese tea from a nearby refrigerator and handed the plastic cup to me along with my receipt.

Liang Pi Noodles

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger

Liang pi noodles, the dish that put the “famous” in Xian Famous Foods, is a must-try. Hand-pulled behind the counter and stir-fried, the texture is complex, amusingly rich and a chunky subject to thoughtful chews. The noodles, drenched in chili oil, are strewn with a generous spread of tangy coriander leaves and the ever so aromatic cumin seeds, that on the whole make the dish mercurial and dangerously addictive.

Xian’s cumin lamb burger, another cult favorite, is gutsy and heavy on flavor. Though the construction is humble, the burger was mighty scrumptious and the spices will surely appeal to your carnivorous instincts. The burger disappeared behind my throat in seconds, leaving nothing but a smile.

81 St Marks Pl (between 2nd Ave & 1st Ave)

Hours: Mon-Thu, Sun, 12 pm – 10 pm, Fri-Sat 12 pm – 11 pm

Phone: (212) 786-2068

Nearest Subway: 1 Av (L), Astor Pl (4, 6, 6X), 3 Av (L)

Priscilla Liu is a multifaceted writer who complains and criticizes because deep down she believes in the good of mankind and the world can do better. She reads voraciously because she did not fit in well in high school nor was she particularly good at math. A sentient being who enjoys traveling and eating, Priscilla is from Jakarta, Indonesia, and continues to be an observant outsider in New York City. She is studying Economics to figure out why writers can’t do their jobs and afford housing at the same time.

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