Xi'an Eats: Xi'an Fanzhuang Restaurant (西安饭庄)
In Xi’an, my work partners asked me what kind of food I wanted to eat… Chinese food, Italian food,… I said i wanted to eat something local! So my colleague suggested Xi’an Fanzhuang (西安饭庄) near our worksite. I was imagining a kind of simple noodle place, since what I know of Shaanxi food from the restaurants in the West mainly consists of noodles of different types, as well as the rou jia mo (肉夹馍), that “burger” of meat.
Instead, Xi’an Fanzhuang turned out to be a rather fancy restaurant, with a huge dining room, along with individual private dining rooms in another section.
And we had quite a feast here. Keep in mind, the following panoply of dishes was for just two people only, one local colleague and myself! I left the ordering to him…
First, we had sliced cold beef with a salty-spicy dipping sauce. This was nice - beefy and tender.
Next was a delicious salad - spinach, tofu, bean sprouts, noodles, in a spicy sauce. This was fresh, and bright, with a decent spiciness. I need to learn how to make this at home!
Then we were served individual servings of Lion's Head meatball shi zi tou (獅子頭). I was actually surprised to see this dish, because it felt like something quite common to me, rather than special to Shaanxi. Still, it was yummy (I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a shi zi tou that I haven’t liked).
Next up was a dish of amazing smoked ribs, with a shatteringly light crust protecting tender and juicy meat underneath. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a delicately delicious - meaty yet not heavy - rendering of ribs.
The next dish was very curious. It was a shrimp ball…
… that was served with a straw. Here, I really had to beg my colleague to demonstrate how to eat it. You take a bite, and then suck out the juices from the inside!
Then came a light soup with meatballs.
And finally, the “主食“ zhu shi, which translates as “staple food,” but which probably refers more to the main carbohydrate. For example, in the south of China, that might be rice, whereas in the north, it is noodles. I ended with an individual bowl of yang rou pao mo 羊肉泡馍, lamb with cubes of steamed bread in a soup. I’ve had this before in San Diego, and to be honest, I missed a bit of brightness and kick in this version in Xi’an compared to the San Diego one, which had more of a play of flavors! My host did explain to me that the pickled garlic served on the side is to “bring down” the flavor of the lamb, in case it was too strong.
Along with dinner, we were served a tea of goji berries and red dates - something I should replicate at home for a non-caffeinated tea - and room-temperature beer. Yes, you read that right! The waitress asked my colleague if he wanted the beer to be cold or room temperature, and he chose the latter!
The next evening, I returned to the same restaurant, this time with the whole Xi’an-based team along with the colleague from the first day. He actually confided to me that before I arrived, a collaborator from Denmark had visited, and they ate in the hotel everyday. Given the excellent breakfast I had, I knew that the food would be good, but my host seemed to not have liked eating the international buffet and the Italian restaurant where she ate twice. In turn, I think he might have enjoyed taking me out to Xi’an Fanzhuang on company dime!
On this day, they ordered a mini, 3-bite rou jia mo 肉夹馍 for me. It was so tiny, even they were taking pictures of it! It was okay, not something I’d hanker for over other versions I’ve had previously.
Other starters included a plate of very fresh, delicate greens, pig skin aspic, a very flat fish in spicy sweet sauce, ribs, and a local specialty, liang pi (凉皮), a cold noodle dish. I’ve read that the process is quite involved - a flour (wheat or rice) and water combination sits overnight, the clear liquid that gets separated above gets poured off, and then the slurry is poured into a bowl which is then steamed. That steamed sheet of dough then gets cut up into slices, to be dressed with a sauce. Wow!
Another cold dish was this kind of meatloaf topped with egg. It really impressed me that cold dishes are really important in these dinners, whereas when I’m in a Chinese restaurant I usually gloss over those pages in the menu.
We also had an excellent roast duck with a crispy skin.
Then suddenly in the middle of dinner, they served a sweet dish. Warm durian puff pastry. The durian flavor was very light rather than pungent, and quite delicious. The sequence of sweet and savory dishes (and the ambiguity of dishes crossing between the two) became a thread through my meals on this trip.
Then we had a liang fen (凉粉) casserole. This is made of the same mung bean starch as glass vermicelli noodles, only in cube form.
And then came my favorite dish of the evening. This was a savory soup with delightfully crunchy grains of rice in it! Even after sitting in the soup, they still maintained their crunch. How did they prepare this? I have no idea, but the textures were really fun. I could have eaten a lot more of this.
I was completely stuffed at this point, but my colleague still ordered a bowl of noodles in sour-flavored broth. I begged someone to share with me, so this is actually the bowl with part already taken out.
Usually I don’t like to repeat restaurants in the same trip, and certainly eating in one restaurant for two out of three meals I had in the city (not including the hotel breakfasts) is unheard of for me. But in a testament to the grand diversity of Chinese food and the ingenuity of Chinese cooks, we didn’t repeat a single dish out of the 19 across both evenings. This was despite the fact that my colleagues limited themselves to ordering dishes specific to the region! Eating at Xi’an Fanzhuang was a delight, and made ever more so by the wonderful dining partners I had with the team in Xi’an.
As I was checking up the address of the restaurant, I learned that there are five other locations around Xi’an, and even one additional branch in Hangzhou, so it’s kind of a mini-chain. ndeed, there was a restaurant sign boasting that it dated to 1929, so I did figure that this restaurant set in the gleaming skyscrapers of a new business district in the southwest part of the city wasn’t the original!.
Xi’an Fanzhuang (Xi’an Restaurant)
Jin Ye Road #38 锦业路38号