The team behind Mesa’s new Shaanxi Chinese Restaurant hopes to share a style of regional Chinese cuisine rarely seen in the U.S.
Changhai Huang and his girlfriend, Pingping Xiao, gently sing a children’s song, interrupted by the occasional giggle, as Xiao draws one of the most complex characters in the Chinese language — a symbol of Huang’s food, his culture and his home.
The character represents the word “biáng,” and looking at the dense block of 57 strokes, it’s clear why children from Shaanxi — the northwestern Chinese province that’s home to the ancient capital, Xi’an — are taught a song to help them remember how to draw it.
“This word is only in Shaanxi,” says Xiao, translating for Huang. “It represents Shaanxi. When you say ‘biáng,’ people will know you’re talking about Shaanxi. There is culture behind this word.”
Shaanxi culture is the heart of Shaanxi Chinese Restaurant, which opened in Mesa on Friday, Dec. 8.
The eatery on Dobson Road, off Main Street, is the couple’s collaboration with co-owner Noel Cheng and chef Jiang Niu. Together, the team hopes to share a style of regional Chinese cuisine rarely seen in the United States, and along with it, the flavor of Cheng, Huang and Niu’s home.
Their first project: House of Egg Roll
Like many Chinese immigrants who are fueling the boom in the Valley’s Chinese restaurant scene, Huang, Xiao and Cheng were international students at Arizona State University and settled here after graduating.
In 2015, Huang purchased House of Egg Roll, a forgettable, decaying Americanized Cantonese takeout joint in Chandler, and completely remade the menu with the dishes of his native province.
Over the next year and a half, House of Egg Roll would go through multiple menu revisions and name changes, eventually settling into its current identity, a Chongqing-style noodle shop called Let’s Eat Noodles.
But Huang, Xiao and Cheng made plans for a new Shaanxi-style restaurant — one that would be far more ambitious than the first.
Stepping into Shaanxi Chinese Restaurant, diners are greeted by two replicas of Xi’an’s famous terracotta warriors, flanking a giant, glowing sign depicting the character for biáng, a symbol of Shaanxi culture and its most famous dish.
Like many complex Chinese characters, biáng can be broken down into smaller components that lend meaning to the whole: references to the Qin dynasty warriors, the myth of the horse king, Shaanxi’s agricultural roots, its artistic history and more are all pulled together into this single character, Huang says.
Taken together, they represent a playful onomatopoeia, “biáng,” — the sound made when Shaanxi’s famed noodles are slapped on the table as they’re being hand-pulled.
In Shaanxi province, noodles are a big deal
“The region is very dry, so wheat grows in the Xi’an area,” Xiao explains, translating for Huang. “Because it has more wheat, it’s focused on noodles. Noodles are the most famous dish, many types of noodles.”
But Shaanxi Chinese Restaurant is much more than a noodle shop.
Shaanxi is carefully decorated with room for about 120 and a central stage where guests can sing or play instruments. Its owners hope the space will become as much a gathering place and cultural oasis as a restaurant, and they’ve searched far — very far — to bring in the people who can make it happen.
Chef Jiang Niu is a veteran of Xi’an’s luxury hotel scene, having worked at both the Shangri-La and the Sheraton Xi’an. Three months ago, he relocated to the U.S.to lead the kitchen at Shaanxi.
It’s probably not the experience he anticipated.
Accustomed to having an army of prep cooks highly trained in Shaanxi cuisine, Niu has spent weeks bringing a multicultural staff, many of whom do not speak the same language, up to speed.
Walking around his new kitchen in Mesa, bins are tagged with bright yellow sticky notes showing the Chinese characters, Romanization and English translation for every ingredient. One cook demonstrates the process of pulling, tearing and simmering biángbiáng mian — Xi’an’s ancient noodles — while others practice working on a long hot line of blistering woks.
The result is an 88-item menu (eights are considered lucky in Chinese culture) that covers many famed dishes from around China, but is primarily focused on the foods of Shaanxi province, Xi’an in particular.
At last, diving into Shaanxi cuisine
Fried shrimp in a light, citrusy mayonnaise-based sauce ($16.89) are widely available around town, but this version takes on an added dimension, crusted with crisp, fried potato threads and served alongside candied walnuts.
A cauldron of silky tomato soup ($21.89) is hung from a tall metal stand, gently bubbling as it sways above a warming flame. The soup is smooth and rich, thickened by the piles of tender stewed oxtails and ox bones within.
Slices of chilled, marinated tofu.
Stir-fried beef with cumin and Sichuan pepper.
Tender marble-size pork meatballs in a warming broth.
Slivers of meltaway pork belly dressed with sweet soy and fermented black beans.
Even more comforting is a light broth ($10.89) made with ginseng, silkie (black chicken), Chinese herbs and maca, a Peruvian root for a contemporary touch. The broth is thin and darkly colored with an intense herbal fragrance, the surface glistening with just a hint of chicken fat.
House of Egg Roll’s lamb dumpling soup ($12.89) not only is on Shaanxi’s menu, but it might be even better. The dish has been revamped, a bowl of intensely sour and spicy broth loaded with thick, chewy dumplings that are stuffed with a smooth, seasoned filling of ground lamb.
On the other hand, Shaanxi’s signature house biángbiáng noodles ($11.89) are remarkably understated. Topped with steamed bok choy and a sauce of slow-cooked pork and stewed vegetables, the long, wide, flat noodles — resembling a belt — are slippery and supple with a gorgeously resilient texture. Even spiked with a touch of the table chile sauce and black vinegar, they’re less bold and more comforting, an ancient, history-rich dish that has endured, literally, for millennia.
“The ancient people found out this way to make noodles, starting in the Qin dynasty, the first empire,” Xiao says. “This word, biáng, represents biángbiáng noodles. They created this dish, this word, and it combines not only the sound but all of the culture of Xi’an, together.”