Nobody goes to the empty, post-apocalyptic shell of a supermarket in Dun Huang Plaza. As far as I can tell, people cross the street just to avoid making eye contact with one of its unsurprisingly desperate-looking staff. But because of that phenomenon, it's easy to miss restaurants in that little corner of the plaza, despite its proximity to the back parking garage.
For those hungry or dedicated enough to brave the lack of English signage, eating at Xi'an Noodles is its own bounteous reward. New Yorkers already know the virtues of Shaanxi cuisine (Shaanxi is the region, Xi'an its largest city)—there are currently 11 outlets of beloved Xi'an Famous Foods throughout Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn, not to mention countless copycats. But at the moment, Xi'an Noodles is Houston's only purveyor of the approachable, flavor-forward dishes.
I've been an evangelist for the rou jia mo ever since I first tried the sandwich at Montréal's Maison du Nord nearly a decade ago. The long-stewed meat, whether pork, lamb or chicken, traces its heritage back to the Zhou Dynasty, meaning the recipe is potentially nearly 3,000 years old. The flat, chewy burger bun on which it's served is likely more than 2,000 years old itself. That makes the creation of the rou jia mo contemporary with the reign of Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, perhaps most famous today for the terracotta army he created in Xi'an to guard him after death. Yep, the real life military men on whom each statue was based likely bit into a rou jia mo just after their modeling sessions.
At Xi'an Noodles, the bread is lightly fried for a crisp jacket, and a chewy, flaky interior. All the better to absorb the fatty juices of the five-spice flavored pork. The pleasingly adipose meat melts with each bite, which is delightful, if greasy. The leaner, more aromatic lamb sandwich is heavy with cumin, sweetened just a bit with onions. I accompanied them with a cup of hot, sugary pear juice.
Though the noodle dish known as liangpi doesn't have as romantic a story as the rou jia mo, it's a treat for vegans, vegetarians and lovers of thin, wide noodles. At Xi'an Noodles, homemade rice flour dough is steamed to create the charmingly uneven noodles. Some are the width of my pinky, others as thick as two thumbs.
When I ordered the dish, the man at the counter assembled the ingredients right in front of me: first a hefty pile of noodles, a handful of spongy seitan, and hearty helpings of bean sprouts and cucumbers. "You like it spicy?" he asked me. With the affirmative, he spooned on globs of sesame-spiked chile oil.
Even eaten at home later that evening (it's since provided me with two more meals), the noodles were slick and tasted freshly steamed. I wouldn't have minded more of the chile sauce, which I'll request next time, but a bag of sesame oil included with my order added to the flavor.
There isn't much else on the menu at Xi'an Noodle. Next time I get the noodles, I'll try it with a side of duck necks or heads, but at the moment, those are the limits. Still, the lack of diversity won't keep me from returning again and again for a rou jia mo before or after dinner elsewhere.