For centuries, the Chinese city of Chang’an acted as a capital and royal residence. Just to the east, across the Bahe River, are the famous terra cotta warriors; in town, a recently opened park showcases the remains of a nearly 1,400-year-old royal palace.
Here, for centuries, traders from across China gathered to head west and north on the Silk Road. Their path arced around mountains and then descended to Samarkand, Persia and the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, flavors of Central Asian culture found their way into the local cuisine. Roasted lamb was a favored meat in Chang’an, spiced with cumin and hot peppers. Muslim traders brought their breads and seasonings. The city is named Xi’an now, and it’s moved slightly over the years, but its culinary heritage has only gotten richer.
Two years ago, the only ways for residents of northern Texas to try traditional foods from Xi’an were to cook dishes themselves or hop on an airplane. Now Plano is host to two kitchens serving Xi’anese cooking, both of them in food courts.
Morefan, on Legacy Drive, cracked the Observer’s Top 100 Restaurants last year. The newer contender, Xi’an Yummy Foods in the recently remodeled zTao Marketplace, sports an even bigger and broader menu.
Well-traveled diners will immediately notice that the name of Xi’an Yummy Foods bears a resemblance to a certain well-loved chain from the New York City area. Certain dishes at the New York institution are, alas, both more flavorful and more photogenic. But Dallas was desperately lacking in cumin lamb noodles, and now we’re not, so Xi’an Yummy Foods is cause for celebration.
A few words about those cumin lamb noodles. If you order the stir fried variety ($9), your nose will take it in first. The aroma of cumin is bewitching, and it’s noticeable before you even walk up to the restaurant’s counter. There’s probably no dish served anywhere in Dallas that comes close to the amount of cumin in this bowl — or, rather, this plastic tray. There are hot pepper flakes, too, and surely other spices, but the dish is only mildly spicy.
Thin slices of tender lamb, red onion, carrot and bok choy weave their way through the bowl. But the star of the dish is the noodles themselves, even if they’re usually cooked a few seconds too long. They’re pulled and torn by hand, which gives each noodle a different shape. Many curl up around the edges; some start a centimeter wide and slowly narrow down to a point as thin and round as spaghetti.
Stir fried is, however, the least good way to order noodles at Xi’an Yummy Foods, because they are prone to overcooking. Best might be the biang biang noodles, which are named for the sound the dough makes when slapped against a prep surface ($10). As wide as belts and over a foot long, the biang biang noodles come dressed with a gently sweet-spicy sauce and topped with tomatoes, baby bok choy leaves, black mushrooms, small cubes of meat and bean curd, and a whole spoonful of hot pepper flakes.
“Spicy hot oil spill noodles” are exactly what they sound like: handmade noodles doused in chile pepper flakes, many of which are eager to jump out of the bowl and onto diners’ shirts ($10). There’s not much else to the dish besides a brace of bean sprouts.
For the diner who wants to avoid both cumin and heat, one of the very best dishes at Xi’an Yummy Foods is a lamb noodle soup made with thin rice noodles, even thinner slices of lamb and a broth so richly meaty that it could be a meal by itself. Grab a bowl for $9, or trade to a slightly smaller bowl with a pita-like flatbread on the side for $8.
For an appetizer, why not consider more noodles? The cold liangpi noodles are a fascinating preparation all their own ($6). The dough gets rolled out into a thin, gigantic pancake, then steamed and cut after cooking. This method creates a texture like no other noodle in Texas: springy and pleasingly chewy, but slippery enough to make picking them up into a little game.
At Xi’an Yummy Foods, the platter of liangpi is topped with julienned cucumbers and tangled, nest-like knots of wheat gluten. There’s a splash of broth at the bottom with just enough heat to keep those three ingredients on their toes.
Finally, Xi’an Yummy Foods offers two varieties of “burger” — roujiamo, which has been an iconic street snack for, believe it or not, two millennia. They couldn’t be simpler: a bun filled with meat.
The bun is the diameter and thickness of an English muffin, but the dough is coiled — look at the ring-shaped toast marks on the bottom — and it’s smooth and a little bit stiff. The pork filling is simply good, stewed, pulled pork ($5); the spicy cumin lamb filling is glorious and huge on flavor, and loaded with red onions and green bell peppers too ($6).
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All of these noodles and roujiamo are featured in one of the newest Asian food courts in Plano; more stalls are on the way. There’s already a Chinese barbecue shop with roasted ducks hanging on racks, and a rather neglected-looking dim sum counter where dumplings and other snacks sit buffet-style on steam tables, waiting for customers to come by. A not-yet-open shop promises “Taiwanese-style steaks.”
The popular Korean bakery 9 Rabbits, which got started on Royal Lane in Dallas, just celebrated a grand opening inside zTao Marketplace, as well. It doesn’t hurt that zTao itself is a pretty great place to shop.
Xi’an Yummy Foods isn’t perfect; we wish the stir-fried noodles were cooked a little less and that the spicy hot oil noodles had had an extra dimension of flavor. But it’s a lot easier to manage than a trip to New York.
Xi’an Yummy Foods. 2049 Coit Road, Suite 300, inside zTao Marketplace food court, Plano. Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Sunday.