It’s not every day that you come across a condiment that makes you do a double take. Heck, it’s not every year. But think about how it felt the first time you smeared wasabi on a sushi roll, or dolloped pepper jelly on a country ham biscuit—and then head to the corner of 9th and Arch immediately to get a jolt of that same rare giddiness at Xi’an Sizzling Woks, which opened as softly as a whisper in May.
There’s no fanfare announcing the garnish in question, either, which comes half hidden by cilantro in a tiny side bowl placed next to the “Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb & Beef Soup.” That dish merits a lengthy paragraph in the winningly idiosyncratic English of Xi’an Sizzling’s menu, part of which reads: “tear, pinch, rub are some of the 12 different skillful ways that we break the roasted pancake into the size of a bee head,” so it was a surprise when the best part was biting into something the description completely left out. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. I’d dropped it into the rich, bready broth myself. But by the time it slipped onto my spoon amid a tangle of glass vermicelli, the ensuing sensation was an electrifying shock. Because really, since when does roasted garlic crunch like a Granny Smith apple?
I had the garlic part right, but the roasted flavor was pure culinary sleight-of-hand. The crunchy cloves were, in fact, six-month pickles: sweet and sour, slightly gingery, and so uncannily reminiscent of roasted garlic that I ate the rest like candy, straight from their little bowl, in rapt fascination.
It was one of many pleasant surprises at Xi’an Sizzling Woks, which specializes in the cuisine of Shaanxi province. Shaanxi shares a border—and occasional outbursts of chili heat—with Szechuan, its southern neighbor, but westward influences loom large in its cooking. Present-day Xi’an (home to the famous Terracotta Army) was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and more than 2,000 years later, its food still calls forth fragrant visions of Central Asian caravans wafting cumin and the smell of leavened flatbreads.
There’s nothing like a couple millennia to meld those influences into a soulful fusion. One of my favorite examples was the “Chinese hamburger,” a hearty $3.50 appetizer that plays like a lip-smacking form of Middle Eastern heresy: subtly spiced pulled pork packed into more of that outstanding, still-steaming pita bread, whose crisped edge and spongy interior are unsurpassed in Philadelphia. The palm-sized loaves are like a cross between English muffins and the grainier rounds of khobz I remember fondly from Morocco. How often can you say of a Chinese restaurant that you’d come just to buy its bread loaves by the dozen?
Another hamburger variation worth trying features beef and green peppers spiced more sharply with chilies and cumin. Feeling brave? Double down with a cold salad of long hots and cilantro (not parsley, as the menu errs in translation) that will scorch your tongue as thoroughly as any of the Szechuan dishes you might find at Han Dynasty. Like that restaurant, Xi’an Sizzling is built for family-style sharing. The broader the order, the richer the interplays between hot and cold, slick and chewy, spicy and soothing, sour and savory.
There can hardly be a better way to beat back the heat—be it weather- or chili-related—than with a bowl of cold liang pi. A tangled mass of starchy, slippery rice noodles bristles with a textural riot of water-crisp bean sprouts, shoestring-cut cucumbers, and squeaky chunks of wheat gluten whose spongy, porous structure oozes juicy vinegar touched with chili oil. When I asked how these exceptionally slick noodles are made, I was told, “Too difficult!”—and referred to the menu, which describes a “rigorous process” of “rubbing, grasping, twist, wash, steaming and cooling.”
Could it be more rigorous than Xi’an’s biang biang noodles? These come in long white belts sturdy enough to hitch up a pair of kung fu pants, with raggedy edges and pocked surfaces to which sauce can cling. The name says it all. Whether it derives from the hard slapping of dough against a prep table or the sound people make when eating them, these noodles have a bounce that practically makes your teeth rebound off them. My favorite version was in a dish with a deceptively generic title, “Sauteed Spicy Chicken & Noodle,” where they were stained with a rust-colored chili gravy also soaking its way into potato chunks that tempered a bit of its heat.
The “Spicy Sour Minced Pork Noodles” are also a must—though less for the thin-cut noodles than for the soup that swamps them. The warm broth splits the wide difference between pho and ramen: tangy with black vinegar, rich (but not overly) with bits of braised pork and small cubes of fat, and aromatic with baby onion shoots. Mine didn’t need a single drop from the condiment caddy to gussy it up.
But don’t let that stop you from requesting a side bowl of pickled garlic cloves to go with yours.