I skulked along the back corridors of the Golden Mall, my head bowed, my face buried in my coat collar. I'm a regular customer of Chengdu Heaven and I didn't want them to see me eating in a rival establishment. But I was bound and determined to eat at the only restaurant in the New York area offering food from Xi'an.
Stall Number 36 at the mall at 41-28 Main Street, Flushing, is a narrow space with every square inch of wall space devoted to photographs of luscious-looking food. I was deciding what to order when the man who runs the stall came up. He speaks fluent English and was glad of any opportunity to try it out. I told him I'd been to Xi'an and he wanted to know the exact neighborhood; he grew up there and probably misses it. We talked and then I asked about a lamb dish in the photos. Have it mixed with this, he said, pointing to a photo of wide noodles. It didn't sound like a good idea, but I tried it anyway. I'm glad I did. It was delicious!
The lamb was on top. It was lamb brushed with cumin, just like you'd get at Little Pepper or Chengdu Heaven. But Xi'an probably got it first. The idea of using cumin came from the west, along the silk road, back when Xi'an, then called Chang'an, was the capital of China and arguably the center of the world. Twelve hundred years ago the central market at Chang'an was ringed with hundreds of food stalls (probably a lot like this one) featuring food from Persia and points west, as well as food from China. In any case, the cumin lamb, mixed with a few green peppers, was excellent. But the noodles were the star of the show. Broad, chewy and hand-cut (something like peel noodles), they were unlike anything I'd ever tasted. There were tiny cubes of bread mixed in to soak up the sauce -- and again I've never had anything like that reddish broth. A rich, very unusual and totally unidentifiable flavor. I used a spoon to make sure I got every drop.
Though Xi'an is pretty far west of, say, Peking, it isn't really Western China. But I think the food was very much influenced by the West -- not the west of Europe, or cowboys, but the West of the Silk Road, chaikhanas serving turbaned traders, mud-brick mosques. And indeed there was no pork on the menu. Xi'an has a small Hui Muslim minority, and some of the best restaurants offer Hui food. I have no idea if the owner is Hui. But his food is certainly influenced by Hui cooking, and this stall offers a rare chance to try it.
Golden Shopping Mall
41-28 Main St, Queens, NY 11355