Any serious food enthusiast can explain the difference between Tuscan and Sicilian cuisine; between the food of Parisians and their Provencal counterparts; between the predominant ingredients of northern and southern India. And yet despite its size and culinary diversity, most of us who didn't grow up with the culture don't know a lot about the culinary regions of China outside of Canton, Sichuan, and Hunan.
In the past six months, two restaurants have opened in San Francisco that specialize in the food of Xi'an, a city in the middle of China best known as the home of the terracotta warriors. But Xi'an is also an important culinary city — it was a major stop on the Silk Road, and as such, has a significant Muslim population whose influences can be seen in the lamb dishes, the flatbreads, and the Middle Eastern spices like cumin. The menus at these restaurants share a lot in common with the Chinese fare that's planted a foothold in America, but hidden among the potstickers and hot-and-sour soup are a few dishes that offer a new perspective on Chinese food.
One of Xi'an's most famous dishes is yangrou paomo, a lamb soup studded with small pieces of unleavened flat bread ($8.95). It operates on the same principle as chicken and dumplings, but at least in the version at Xi An Gourmet at Second and Geary, the soup is spicier and more interesting than that bland Western comfort food. It has bits of meat, mushrooms, and a few soft glass noodles swirling around the broth to add texture. It's a soothing dish designed for people who really like lamb.
An affection for the meat will be rewarded too by the traditional lamb dumplings, which have thick, chewy skins and an intense gaminess that's only slightly tamed by the vinegary dipping sauce ($6.89). (Those who want a milder flavor can go with the pork-and-cabbage versions, which are more like steamed pot stickers.) But anyone who likes kebabs will enjoy the Shaanxi lamb sandwich ($5.95), an ancient form of the hamburger that pairs fatty, grilled, cumin-scented meat with a soft, subtle, steamed roll.
The table's favorite dish, it must be admitted, wasn't Xi'an at all — it was the spicy octopus tentacles, an intriguing take on calamari with tender, breaded-and-fried octopus legs in a spicy sauce with a generous amount of Szechuan numbing peppercorns ($12).
Our whole meal was a bit of an ordeal. A few things ordered were never received, though they were taken off the bill at the end. It was difficult to flag down waitresses for water refills or the bill request, despite a half-empty restaurant. The fluorescent-lit, linoleum-tiled room, formerly the Chinese-American Shandong House, had little personality save for the colorful, handwritten pieces of paper on the walls trumpeting the specials. Thankfully the food spoke for itself.
Closer to the center of the city is the also-new House of Xi'an Dumpling, which sits on Kearny at the intersection of Chinatown and North Beach. This spot has better lighting and cheery and welcoming service, though it does have unfortunate mustard-yellow walls and there's no beer-and-wine license yet (they're working on it). Still, the prices are cheap, and a man in the back pulls noodles and folds dumplings behind a piece of plexiglass while diners watch.
Start with shredded pig ear, a dish more about texture than flavor. The thin, cold, marinated strips were faintly sweet and bacon-y, but each bite was all about the interplay of soft fat and the subtle crunch of the cartilage.
House of Xi'an Dumpling didn't offer the Xi'an specialties like the lamb sandwich or bread-and-lamb soup, but there were fatty, generous skewers of lamb redolent of cumin and chile flakes ($6.95), lamb dumplings with the same doughy, wrinkly skins of the region ($7.95), and hand-pulled noodles that appeared in the excellent, fortifying soups ($6.95).
Decadent beef tendon had a luscious, silky broth with a surprising backbone of spice, filled with noodles that had the right texture — the kind that give up a bit of a fight before yielding to the teeth. Chicken soup was one of the best bowls of the stuff I've ever had the good fortune to come across, rich and savory, with seasoned chicken pieces that tasted like fried chicken without the skin. I made a mental note to come back for it on a cold, foggy day, or when I was feeling under the weather. It felt restorative.
Dumplings are right in the name of the restaurant, and they were fine, if nothing exceptional. The pork-and-cabbage variation ($6.95) was nearly indistinguishable from the lamb — both had mushy meat in a bland wrapper, and needed the vinegar sauce to give them flavor. The restaurant also offered soup dumplings, xiao long bao ($6.95), and if its version was not as great as those at Shanghai Dumpling House or Kingdom of Dumpling, they were at least good enough, especially considering their accessibility to downtown workers.
Would I recommend either of these as can't-miss S.F. Chinese restaurants? Probably not. But would I come back to explore the flavors of a region that, until a few weeks ago, was a complete culinary blank for me? Absolutely.