The constellation of authentic Chinese restaurants arrayed around the University at Buffalo's Amherst campus has grown steadily over the last five years. Their presence has given Buffalo area eaters glimpses of the vast mosaic of flavors enjoyed by 1.3 billion Chinese appetites, whose regional specialties are as varied as Tex-Mex diners and New England seafood houses.
So when I learned than a Xi'an-centric restaurant was located five minutes from campus, I scrambled to learn more. Xi'an is the capital of Shaanxi Province, the most populous northwestern city and site of the terra-cotta army buried in the 3rd century BC. Xi'an cuisine is known for lamb and pork dishes especially, with influences from spicy Sichuan and western China's Muslim populations.
I led a team to tackle Xi An Gourmet's 92-dish menu, and see what delicious new glimpses of an ancient culture we might be able to find hidden behind the generic facade.
It's a bare-bones room next to a convenience store, off Niagara Falls Boulevard just north of Asia Food Market, the huge new Asian supermarket in Amherst. Drinks include self-serve tea and water, and soft drinks. There is no alcohol.
Here's what sets Xi An apart: lamb, pickles and bread. If you're not used to eating bread in a Chinese restaurant, here's your chance, as it shows up in three house specialties worth trying.
First is the Chinese burger ($3.95), which comes in pork or beef. The bun is more like a jumbo cornmeal-free English muffin than a puffy American burger holder.
Inside is a mixture of chopped meat, rich with fat, scallions and spices. It's an amiable little snack, and an apt marker that you're about to wander away from the ordinary.
Beef or lamb soup with bread ($6.50) brings a steaming bowl of broth sprinkled with scallion and cilantro, hiding clear, chewy noodles and sliced meat. Pieces of pale focaccia-like bread come on a separate plate, to be torn up and soaked as you will.
A major eye-opener for me was the double-cooked pork belly stir-fried with homemade bread ($11.95). Turns out the Chinese have a crouton game, too. That house-made bread is sliced thin, seasoned and fried to a crisp. Then it's stir-fried again with ribbons of roasted pork belly and leeks and bell peppers for an outstanding stir-fry. Now I'm wondering why more croutons don’t bathe in pork fat.
Lamb was the next major strength at Xi An. A leg of lamb ($39.95) takes longer to show up – allow about 40 minutes – but it's a real lamb-a-palooza that should sate four to six lamb lovers. Out comes a tray bearing the meat and bones. Some had crispy meat edges still clinging that got my gnawing reflex going. (Owner Sean Chen suggested calling ahead a few hours early to make sure the leg is available.)
There's also a bowl of dry, chili-forward spice powder, and sliced onions. Bites of lamb are shredded, dipped in the dry spices if desired, and eaten atop rice with onions. Or not – the tender lamb was a savory success by itself.
Another lamb triumph was the sliced lamb noodle soup ($8.50). Under the floating scallions and cilantro is a broth delivering deep lamb flavor, plenty of sliced meat, and fat white noodles that pick up the broth's flavor particularly well.
Grilled lamb with cumin ($13.95) is a stir-fry dish that delivers lamb in a dark brown cumin gravy, to be eaten on rice. It was delicious, but not as fragrant as the version at Home Taste in Kenmore.
Pickles and pork are a pairing I've come to appreciate in authentic Chinese food. The sharp tang and crunch of preserved vegetables balances the fattiness while providing another vegetable input.
In Xi An's shredded pork tripe with preserved Napa cabbage ($9.95), the pairing was even better braced up against the organ meat funk. Strips of tripe coiled with a sort of thick-cut sauerkraut and slips of bell pepper managed to get some tripe-averse people to agree it could be tolerable. (For tripe, that's a win.)
Minced pork with preserved long beans ($8.95) is a spicier but less scary take on the same premise. Xi An's version was solid, but the one offered by China Star in Amherst is more wok-smoky.
Sliced squid with preserved Napa cabbage ($11.95) was a winner all the way around. Calamari cut lengthwise comes off like chewy noodles with the pickles' acid adding lightness to the heap of seafood.
Xi An has lots of other dishes, including competent American Chinese, like sesame chicken ($11.95), which an 11-year-old guest enjoyed while those around him ate things he would not countenance. Deep-fried pork chops ($9.95) were crispy-crumbed pork slices served with a side of sweet-and-sour sauce that listed heavily to the sour side.
Spicy stir-fried chicken with potatoes ($18.95) is a dish for sharing with four to six. It's a stew of hacked up bone-in chicken in a ginger gravy with bell peppers and a scattering of spicier dried chile. Stir-fried bok choy with garlic ($8.95) was tender-crisp and brilliant green in a light garlic sauce.
The setting isn't special at Xi An, but many of its best dishes can't be found elsewhere in the area. You can always find another burger, but lamb noodle soup like this doesn’t come along every day. Here's to a year full of more glimpses into the delicious diversity the world offers, right here in Buffalo.
Xi An Gourmet – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 15 Willow Ridge Road, Amherst (691-8880)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
Prices: Appetizers and soups, $3.95-$8.95; entrees, $7.95-$18.95; leg of lamb, $39.95.
Gluten-free: Ask staff.