Eyes open and the plate looked like chicken scarpariello, the East Coast Italian-American classic. Yet the taste was a jumble of jalapeños, cardamom and pepper. Lots of pepper. Maybe Middle Eastern? Maybe Indian? Maybe Chinese?
Funny thing is that the dish had the simplest of names, Big Plate Chicken. Its bold, in-your-face profile was indicative of most of what I tried at Xi An Gourmet (formerly Shandong House), which was better known as a noodle emporium.
The owners are the same and it turns out that the chef is from the Shaanxi region of China, where Middle Eastern culinary influences are prominent. In fact, I noticed cups of plain yogurt adorning many tables, its cooling element being put to good use.
We instead loaded up on a few orders of cold cucumbers to ease our palates. The clean taste of the lightly vinegared gourds mixed with a little finely minced garlic worked wonders throughout the meal, like ginger between sushi bites.
Either of the Shaanxi sandwiches, served on a bun that brings to mind a day-old English muffin, are required eating. The lamb was action-packed with enough cumin to keep your head clear for a few days, while the earthy shredded pork brought to mind Carolina-style barbecue. If only there was a squeeze tube of mustard-based sauce to douse it with.
Even more unique to the local Chinese food scene is the innocently labeled lamb bread stir-fry, actually a generously sized bowl of glass noodles, rough-hewn shards of gamey lamb and chewy, doughy cubes.
This trio led to a texture combination that I’d never before experienced, made all the more fascinating by the slightly funkified sour broth it was bathed in.
Though noodles aren’t thwacked to order like they used to be, they’re still made fresh daily and were a highlight of our dinner. The al dente Shaanxi handmade noodles can be cut to preference. I suggest the wide option, as the extra surface soaked up an abundance of chili oil.
Also drenched in chili oil were a tangle of steamed cold noodles that, like the lamb, were adorned with bits of dough, creating yet another textural oddity.
Also a holdover from the old menu is the sliced beef pancake, a lightly fried, pre-assembled roll with a mushu-style filling minus the egg. It was fun for the first few bites, but I found myself yearning for some hoisin sauce to serve double purpose as a sweetener and a moistener. Then again, one of my pals proclaimed it his favorite new food of 2013.
None of the fare is tear-drawing spicy. Most dishes leave the mouth numb and warm, which, on a frigid night in the Inner Richmond, is a welcome sensation. Gathered on the sidewalk after our feast, the dads uttered “unique” and “not for the faint of heart” to describe what we’d just inhaled. Accurate descriptions, I’d say.
Xi An Gourmet
Location: 3741 Geary Blvd. (at Second Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 668-5888
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price range: $3.95 to $19.95
Recommended dishes: Xin Jiang Big Plate Chicken ($19.95), stir-fried lamb with bread ($9.95), Shaanxi hand-made noodle ($6.99), Shaanxi sandwich with cumin lamb ($5.95), cucumber with garlic sauce ($4.99)
Credit cards: Cash only
Reservations: Not accepted