One of the many reasons I love doing Special Sauce is I get to interview people who shed light on various parts of the food culture I know very little about. People like Jason Wang. Wang and his father, David Shi, are the co-propietors of Xi’an Famous Foods, the fast-casual Chinese food concept that introduced New Yorkers to dishes like as lamb burgers, liang pi “cold skin” noodles, and the legendary lamb face salad that’s unfortunately no longer on the menu. Wang emigrated with his family from the city of Xi’an, China, when he was eight, and life was not easy for the Wang family. “My father’s work life in the U.S. is kind of what you would imagine it to be [for] someone who is a middle-aged immigrant from China who doesn’t speak any English,” Wang says. “There’s only a few things that he could really do in this country, and one of those would be working in a restaurant.” Wang’s father would be away for weeks or even months at a time working at restaurants all along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the family lived in Queens, NY, in the basement of someone else’s home. His dad “would take a bus somewhere, and someone would pick him up from the restaurant [he was employed by], and he would basically live in the boss’s house with the other workers,” Wang says. “So in middle school and high school, I wouldn’t see him for at least one or two weeks [at a time].” Wang’s family really wanted him to get a college education, and his mom and dad ended up saving up enough, when combined with some scholarship money, to send him to Washington University in St. Louis. While he was away at school, his father finally was able to leave his itinerant restaurant work behind. Shi had saved up enough money to open a bubble tea franchise in one of the subterranean food courts that dot the Chinese-American enclave of Flushing, Queens. And that’s where X’ian Famous Foods was born in 2005.
Besides selling bubble tea, Wang says his father also “sold some food on the side from our hometown, namely our cold skin noodles, our liangpi, the burgers, and a little bit of the noodles. It was just a side thing.” And, after a brief stint at Target after graduation, Wang joined his father.
During our conversation, Wang offers up a concise description fo the defining elements of the food he and his father make and sell. “Traditionally,” Wang says, “every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is ‘mala,’ so it’s spicy and tingly. That’s their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So ‘suān’ means sour. ‘Xiāng là’ means fragrantly spicy. So that’s kind of how our food is. If you’ve had our food before, you see a lot of use of the black vinegar, a lot of use of, of course, the red chilies.”
Wang’s story, his father’s story, and the story of Xi’an Famous Food’s beginnings, had me riveted. When you listen, I think you’ll be mesmerized as well.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Jason Wang: Traditionally, every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is “mala,” so it’s spicy and tingly. That’s their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So “suān” means sour. “Xiāng là” means fragrantly spicy.
EL: This week, Jason Wang is in the house. Jason, along with his dad, David Shi, are the owners and operators of… I’ll let you say it. Say it.
JW: Xi’an Famous Foods.
EL: A fast-casual Chinese concept where they serve the foods of their family’s province. What’s-
JW: Right. Well, from our province as well as the Xi’an, the city itself.
EL: Okay. So it’s both the city of Xi’an, and it’s the province of…?
EL: In Northwestern China. Thank you so much for helping me out, Jason.
JW: No problem.
EL: Thanks to Jason and his father, David Shi, a different kind of Chinese food is entering the American food mainstream. Move over, Canton and Sichuan, there’s a new province in town.
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, Jason.
JW: Thank you. Thank you very much.
EL: It’s great to have the person who introduced all of us to lamb face salad, but what happened to it? It’s not on the menu anymore.
JW: I know. It’s a hard item to get these days, as special as it is. I have to admit, it wasn’t the top seller of our restaurant. It’s popular with our diehard fans, of course, but it’ll make a comeback, and we can talk about it a little bit as well, yeah.
EL: All right. Excellent, excellent.
EL: We start by asking our guests about their family table. And in your case, I’m particularly interested about what your family table was like growing up.
JW: Sure. For our family, being a typical Chinese family, well, I grew up in China for the first eight years of my life, it was a typical thing for a family to sit down together at the end of the day to enjoy a meal together. It doesn’t have to be a very extravagant meal, especially for our family. It’s as simple as two or three dishes and some rice or noodles. And personally as a kid, I didn’t really care much about the food. I was just ready to finish what I have to eat and just go and play with my friends and watch some TV before my piano lessons, of course.
EL: Piano lessons. Man.
EL: They’re serious. Your parents are serious. When did you start taking piano lessons?
JW: Right. So my father actually bought the piano for me before I was born, and then it was already there, so when I turned to two or three, I started practicing and started getting taught by a teacher at our home every week. And it was just something I just had to do.
EL: And did you end up hating it as a result?
JW: Oh yeah. I hate the piano. I mean, I like having that experience, of course, because it actually taught me a little more about musicality and just subconsciously I know that it plays a role in everyday life. But for me to go play piano now, I would not be able to know how because I sort of just walked away from that.
EL: And so what was life like for your family in China? Did your parents both work?
JW: Yes. Well, my parents both worked, and they weren’t home during the day. I lived with my grandfather, who took care of me, who would pick me up for school. In China, for elementary school at least, there’s a midday siesta, almost, like a lunch break where you go home to eat, and you nap for an hour or something, then you go back to school. So he would take care of me for that, and he would get started on dinner as well for me, growing up. So back to the family meal, of course. We do have those, but the big family meals are usually when there’s a holiday, the extended family would come over, uncles, aunts, and cousins, and everyone will cook something, and it will be a big feast.
EL: Got it.
JW: So that’s kind of how I was growing up.
EL: And what did you parents do for work?
JW: They did various things-
EL: There, in China.
JW: Yeah. They did various things I don’t really want to go into that much about.
EL: Got it.
JW: But my father’s always involved with restaurants and hospitality and things like that.
EL: Even there?
JW: Even there, yes.
EL: Got it. Tell us a little bit about the province.
JW: Sure. So Shaanxi Province is different from… some folks might know of another province called Shanxi. They sound very similar. They’re actually right next to each other, but they’re a little bit different. I’m from Shaanxi. That’s kind of the province where the ancient city of Xi’an, also known as Chang’an, is from. Chang’an is the old name for Xi’an. It’s the same place. But it was the home to 13 different capitals of ancient China back when there was an emperor and stuff, so it has a lot of history, a lot of monuments, a lot of ancient buildings and mausoleums that were made by these emperors of different eras. Of course, it’s also known for the terracotta soldier statues.
EL: Which are the ceramic soldiers in the countryside.
JW: Right. They’re in the countryside now because that’s where the first emperor’s mausoleum is, back 2,000-something years ago that was built. For people that don’t know, it’s a vast quote-unquote “army” of terracotta, life-size soldiers, some with actual different facial features that are distinct to themselves as if they’re actual, different, unique people.
EL: And it must be a big tourist attraction.
JW: It’s a big tourist attraction, and that’s kind of on the outskirts of the city. But growing up inside the city, you’re surrounded by history. There’s the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower, which are landmarks such as the Empire State Building in New York City here.
EL: Yeah. I looked at photos online of them. Very cool.
JW: Yeah. It’s kind of like the landmarks. And they don’t allow buildings to build above it, so the city itself, within the city walls, are always this kind of medina of a city.
EL: Right. It’s like an old city wall.
JW: Exactly, exactly. So I grew up within those walls, and thankfully it’s still the same way within those walls these days.
EL: And you came over, your parents with you, when you were eight?
JW: My father came in a little bit later, but we were kind of together here and there. Pretty much grew up all over the U.S., actually.
EL: And was it hard to emigrate?
EL: Do they make it hard there?
JW: Especially back in those days. I think it’s just very hard for someone to immigrate over to the U.S. We had some business over here, so we immigrated that way. I know for some folks, it means immigrating through family connections and whatnot. So that’s how we got over here. At that time, I wasn’t really for it because I had friends there, I had family there, I knew the language, I knew the culture. Coming to a foreign place, it was kind of like, “I don’t really want to. Why?” But it was really for education.
EL: Right. Why? Why? My life is good.
JW: Yeah. It’s for education, it’s for the freedoms, it’s for the environment. It’s just, China wasn’t that developed back then, of course. It’s gotten better these days. There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, but back then it was a different place.
EL: And the president of China is from your province, right?
JW: Exactly, exactly. That’s a big thing, because ever since President Xi became president, there’s been a lot more attention on the province of Shaanxi.
EL: Your province is totally legit now.
JW: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, everyone has to make it legit, if anything. But it is. It really is. It’s a very historical place. Besides the ancient history of it, it’s also important to note, that’s where the New China’s Revolution, Communist Revolution, that’s where it started, during World War II, basically, and that’s kind of where the base was as well. So it has a lot of history, old and new China.
EL: And it’s also, it’s not small.
EL: That city is 12 million people.
JW: That city is a sizable city these days, yeah. It’s growing as well. And the province itself is also vast. And speaking of food cultures in the province, even within that one little province, there’s north, there’s south, and there’s different customs in the way that the food is made. Someone from Xi’an the city might not even know about the food of the northern part of the province. It’s geographically, I think, people were separated in the old days, and they make the different foods and cultures.
EL: Tell us about your dad’s work life here. I was particularly interested in reading about that.
JW: Of course. It almost sounds very stereotypical. My father’s work life in the U.S. is kind of what you would imagine it to be, someone who is a middle-aged immigrant from China who doesn’t speak any English who has no Western education coming into a country where everyone speaks English and it’s a different culture. There’s only a few things that he could really do in this country, and one of those would be working in a restaurant. So when he was in the U.S., he pretty much worked for over a decade in the restaurant business.
EL: But all over, not just where you were living.
JW: Oh yeah. Absolutely. The reason we moved a lot is because of his work. First, we moved to the Midwest, and then after a while, we’re like, “Okay, well, there’s not a lot of work here for him. Let’s move over to the East Coast,” and we ended up in Connecticut, where he found more work, but then it wasn’t as convenient. There’s no big Chinatowns or communities in Connecticut. There’s small pockets but not like New York. So we moved on over here, and so we always kind of followed where work was. And for him, he worked all over the place. He actually mostly worked outside of New York City.
EL: Yeah. And you said he was often away for weeks at a time.
JW: Right, right. So he would be away. Typically, I mean, there are some great articles out there about this as well, in terms of Chinese restaurants in states that are not where big cities are, where New York City is or Chicago or D.C. or Boston. Other states, such as Maryland or North Carolina or Virginia or Pennsylvania, those states have Chinese restaurants too, but they’re kind of remote. So he worked mostly along the Eastern seaboard at those types of restaurants, where he would take a bus over to somewhere close to that place, and someone would pick him up from the restaurant, and he would basically live in the boss’s house with the other workers for… I’ve been to one of these. It’s actually really interesting. They live there almost like a family, and then people go to work, they come back to the house. They work, and they come back. And then after a couple weeks, they take a week off, they come back to their families, wherever. For us, it was in New York. He would come back, and I would see him. So in middle school and high school, it’s pretty often I wouldn’t see him for at least one or two weeks or until he gets fired, of course. That’s pretty often as well.
EL: Now, why…? You mentioned that in a couple of other stories I read. Did he get fired just because people get fired in restaurants or because he was not the world’s best employee?
JW: I think both, you know, to be honest, yeah. Restaurant turnover obviously is very high, and working in those restaurants is not easy work either, of course, and the commute is obviously pretty difficult as well. I remember him telling me this one story of, to make money, one winter night the boss had a dishwasher that called out, and so he was like, “You know, it’s really, really busy over here.” Two-hour drive away, in Connecticut somewhere. He’s like, “I need a dishwasher. Come over here. I’ll give you $100 for the whole night.” So that was a lot of money to him, so he basically drove a couple hours in the snow to this place, got in there, just started washing piles of dishes for pretty much the whole day, to the point where… he tells me the story, and it’s a little dramatized, but I believe him. He washed until his hands were pretty much numb and shaking, and then, at the end, the boss gave him $150 because he thought he did a good job, and then he drove two hours back. So it was hard work, so there’s a lot of folks that still go through that these days. It’s just very difficult. So the job itself is hard. There’s multiple reasons why he probably didn’t do a good job all the time. He has a personality as well. I work with him. But other than that, it’s also just, I think he also had his eyes always on what he ultimately wanted to do.
EL: Which was to open a restaurant, maybe. But he didn’t start out his entrepreneurial life opening a restaurant, right?
EL: How did he get started?
JW: Well, he always had this thought about opening a restaurant. Not just a restaurant but more of an eatery where… nothing fancy. He didn’t think about “Oh, I’m going to open one of these big buffet joints in the middle of Virginia or something like these folks I work with.” It’s more about “I just want to open up something for myself to showcase the food that I cook at home that represents my hometown.” That’s what he had in the back of his head. But because of me, really, because I had to get an education, and it cost us-
EL: It’s all your fault.
JW: Yeah. It’s all my fault. It got delayed. You guys could have Xi’an Famous Foods a lot earlier if it wasn’t for me, but I had to go to school, and there’s expenses for that. So he helped me get on the right track first.
EL: Because that must have been super important to him.
JW: It is. Because we pretty much grew up very frugally. Going through middle school and high school, we lived in a basement, and I never had anyone over because it was kind of weird, because in the whole neighborhood, everyone has their own houses, everyone has their this and that. And for me, it was just like, “I live in someone else’s basement. They do their laundry, they come down.”
JW: And I was like, my room didn’t have windows. It was just a dark room.
EL: And where was this?
JW: This was in Bayside.
EL: In Bayside.
JW: This was where I went to high school. Those were the days spent until I got to college, and it was just about saving and getting to that “ultimate goal,” quote-unquote, right?
EL: It must have been so… did you feel the pressure from your parents?
JW: I mean, I definitely felt the pressure, and I realized that my dad works really hard to provide and I just had to do whatever I could to get into a decent school, which I believe I did.
EL: You did.
JW: I went to Washington University.
EL: You’ve got the Wash U T-shirt.
JW: I just got this shirt.
EL: I’ve seen a lot of video of you wearing that T-shirt.
JW: I show a lot of school pride because I just came back from my ten-year reunion from there, and it was nice to be back. But it costs a lot, of course. A college education in the U.S. is no joke. But that’s kind of how we grew up, but at that point, when I got to college, and whether it’s a mix of scholarships and a mix of money that we saved up for that, I was already on my way. So that’s when my father’s like, “Okay, I can kind of take it easy a little bit. I have a little bit of money set aside that’s left over after I already paid for Jason’s education. I’m going to do something now. It’s for myself, really.” So that’s when he started Xi’an Famous Foods, back in 2005.
EL: And he had already opened a bubble tea franchise, right? Or is that at the same time?
JW: That was at the time. That was the first iteration of this business, I guess. The truth is, it started as a bubble tea franchise location for one of these small franchises in Flushing. At that time, and same as now, bubble tea is still very hot these days. People still like their boba, but now it’s about the cream boba, the cheese drinks, the cheese teas. Those are actually really good. But back then, we didn’t have that. We had just simple milk boba, bubble tea. And it was doing really well in Flushing, and he thought, “Oh, this would be a good hedge against the risk. It’s low-cost, higher margin. I could sell this and maybe sell some food on the side.” So he kind of took on the franchise, but he also sold some food on the side from our hometown, namely our cold skin noodles, our liangpi, the burgers, and a little bit of the noodles. Back then, the noodles were not what they were today. It was just a side thing.
JW: So that’s how he got started.
EL: So literally he had this bubble tea franchise, and then was there a secret menu? Was it like In-N-Out Burger, that people just knew that “Oh, I can get some cold skin noodles along with my bubble tea”?
JW: There’s definitely a feeling of that. Even though it’s not like animal-style, your bubble tea to get a side of liangpi or something, there is a menu, but it wasn’t technically allowed for the bubble tea franchise on the agreement.
JW: He just kind of sold it as a small thing on the side. But people did find out about it. They actually did make their way over there to have that food, not so much about the bubble tea. So it became kind of like a little underground thing that was going on in Flushing at that point.
EL: And I assume that was at first mostly Chinese people?
JW: Oh, absolutely, because Flushing, as you know, it’s very heavy with the Chinese population, and that’s kind of how we get started. We have to have that approval from the local folks over there, and we did, because the products we sold at that point were so new that, when I went back for break, that’s when my father told me he opened the shop. I didn’t know.
JW: The whole semester that I was gone, the first semester in college, I didn’t know what he was up to. I went back, he said, “Oh yeah, I have this bubble tea shop now. You’re going to help out on your break, right? You’re going to cashier.” So I was like, “All right.” But I was kind of happy because it was nice to see this type of food there, and I think that’s what people felt all around that time is that, “Oh, wow, we get to see a new type of Chinese food now.”
EL: And that was 14 years ago.
JW: Wow, yeah. Now that you say it, is really is. It really was.
EL: Yeah. You’re getting old, dude. I don’t know how to break it to you. 10-year anniversary. Man, it’s over. You’re over!
JW: I know. That’s a wake-up call. It’s over. Oh, man. No more. Retirement.
EL: So he opened the bubble tea business, you help out, you get your degree from Wash U.
EL: Great school. But did he encourage you to come back to the business, or did he encourage to go completely legit and get away from the restaurant?
JW: Well, for my father, he is an unorthodox type of person himself, so I don’t think there’s ever a set path, and deep down, he doesn’t believe in-
EL: In his eyes.
JW: Yeah. He doesn’t believe in a set path. Of course, for my sake, he probably always pushed me towards getting an education, a deep, good education, a solid background first. But after that, after I got my degree, he was kind of silent about where to go. Obviously when I got my first job and my internships before that, he was always very happy about it. He was always like, “That’s good. You’ve got to keep doing this. You’re doing a good job with that,” which he rarely says. He rarely compliments me.
JW: So I was like, “Okay. I’m going to”-
EL: I can tell there are still issues.
JW: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
EL: Some issues never get resolved.
JW: Oh, I don’t even think they’re issues. They’re just things, a part of life now. But yeah, we would definitely speak more to that. I could go on and on. But the thing is, he never said much after I graduated because I think he just wants me to figure out what I wanted to do, and at that point I was. I was working in Minnesota.
EL: Right. For Target.
JW: Yeah, for Target. And at their headquarters as a merchandising and business analyst.
EL: God, that sounds deadly.
JW: Well, it’s like going to another school, basically, because you graduate from college as a senior into being a freshman at this huge company with thousands of people, and you’re the freshman again. You’ve got your manager, and then you’ve got your director. It’s a whole iteration of college, I think. But obviously I went to school with a goal of trying to work corporate. You don’t pay that much money to just go back to your family business. That was kind of like the sentiment, really. It’s unspoken, but it’s the sentiment.
JW: So I had to at least try it.
EL: So how long did you last?
JW: I lasted three months or so.
EL: That’s not very long.
JW: Yeah, it’s not very long at all. It was like an internship. So it wasn’t really for me, and while I can make all sorts of excuses and say I was just not into it. You know, I didn’t do that great of a job at it. I was late constantly, and I was not really understanding the… I didn’t really put my heart into it. I didn’t really care enough to do so. But at that point, I was also a little distracted with the possibility of helping the business, because before I graduated, it’s not just when I started working. It’s years before that. Ever since I helped cashiering the first year, every break I’ve been back, I pretty much helped out.
JW: And I see the lines, and I see the people being so enthusiastic about this food.
EL: You sort of got the bug.
JW: The bug. And it’s the pride, really, of feeling that and seeing “Wow, this food, I really like it, and it’s so cool to see other people like it.” It’s just a really nice feeling. And from that, back when I was in high school, I actually made a little bit of money making websites, so that was my little gig back then. So I made the website for our restaurant, this little hole in the wall in the basement of Flushing, with no English menu back then.
EL: Yeah, and we should talk about that Flushing is full of these subterranean… now they’re also above-ground malls, where there could be 20 or 30 food businesses, micro-businesses that people like your dad would open, and to this day they’re still there, right? And some of them are much more upscale now, but your dad’s was one of the first ones downstairs, right?
JW: Yes. It was like a new thing. So like you said, in Flushing there are these food courts, food malls. When you hear “food court” these days, you think higher-end, well-built-out, well-lit, well-designed places, you know?
EL: These were not, though.
JW: They were not. Yeah, they were not like that. So we opened in a place called Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing. It’s a subterranean basement food court that used to be a clothing store of some sort. I actually don’t even remember. It’s one of those buildings that you remember was there as a kid, you just never went in. It’s just like a blind spot there. So he opened up… so that spot was turned into a food court, because at that point there were a lot of folks that were not trying to open a business to make a lot of money to capitalize on this. Really, they’re just making a living. That was the difference.
EL: Or they’re making extra money on top of their day job, right?
JW: Right, right. Well, it does get very difficult and very challenging, so most of the time they would probably have to leave that in order to focus solely on this. But it’s really just, like I was saying before, how, when my father came over from China, there’s very few options for someone who doesn’t really know English. But one option is also to maybe open up your own, right? But in a hyper-competitive place like Flushing in New York, you’ve got to have an edge. You can’t just open another Chinese restaurant. So this was a way people were discovering… as more different immigrants from different parts of China were coming over, they were like, “Huh, we don’t have any food from our hometown here. Why don’t I start selling this?”
EL: Right. And it’s not a small hometown.
JW: Yeah, exactly. Whether it’s Xi’an, whether it’s Tianjin, whether it’s northeastern China, whether it’s Shanghai and other parts of central China for other types of food over there, there’s a lot that China has to offer, so that’s why the wave started. But like you said, now Flushing’s become more expensive for rent. Things are becoming more commercialized, much like how Koreatown has changed in New York as well.
EL: Yeah, for sure. And I would assume that, when all the Hong Kong money started coming over here, that changed Flushing dramatically.
JW: Absolutely. Whether it’s coming from Hong Kong, coming from international, coming from the mainland, really, because a lot of folks like to invest money in a more well-managed economy compared to ones in China, where it’s the wild, wild West. It’s safer to put money in the U.S. than in China a lot of times.
EL: Got it, got it. So I want you to describe the food of your province and the food of your city, because I’m totally fascinated when I read your descriptions of it.
JW: Sure, sure. Our food is… to sum up, tradionally, every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is “mala,” so it’s spicy and tingly. That’s their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So “suān” means sour. “Xiāng là” means fragrantly spicy. So that’s kind of how our food is. It’s mostly along those profiles. If you’ve had our food before, you see a lot of use of the black vinegar, a lot of use of, of course, the red chilies.
EL: Which applies the sourness.
EL: And the red chilies supplies the-
JW: The fragrant.
EL: The fragrant spiciness-
EL: -which I’ve never actually heard anyone talk about, putting fragrant as the adjective in front of “spiciness.” It’s cool.
JW: Yeah. I mean, it’s the scent of it. It’s not supposed to burn, and it’s not supposed to tingle.
EL: No, and it doesn’t. I just have to tell you that my last three meals have been to prepare.
JW: Oh, well.
EL: I had to go back and basically try to have almost everything on the menu.
JW: Oh, I appreciate that.
EL: So it’s opened on 102nd and Broadway.
JW: Oh, okay, all right.
EL: Up near Columbia. And I was struck because I really did taste the fragrantly spicy and sour notes, that even the dishes that are marked as “hot” on the menu are more fragrantly spicy than tinglingly spicy.
JW: Right. So for our food, it’s not necessarily about just trying to be spicy for the sake of spicy. Of course, different people take it at different ways. Some people might think it’s spicy, some people might think it’s not, but for the most part, traditionally, that’s how it should be.
EL: Got it.
JW: Actually, when I went back to Xi’an… I’m actually going in a couple weeks as well, but I’ve been going more recently these days, and when I try the food over there, just to benchmark a little bit, it’s not spicy. It’s just about the scent of it, not so much about the burning part of it, the unpleasant, yeah.
EL: Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting. And what are some of the quintessential dishes that you serve with those flavor profiles?
JW: With those flavor profiles, we serve, well, our liangpi cold skin noodles. That’s a very signature dish that we serve from the region. It’s spicy, it’s sour, a little tangy, yeah.
EL: They’re great, and we have an editor who’s obsessed. He makes them himself.
JW: Oh, wow, that’s hard.
EL: And he’s like, he told our associate producer, Grace, he said, “Ed has to get Jason to give me the recipe, you know, for the noodles.”
JW: Yes. Well, that is upcoming as well.
EL: Oh, cool.
JW: I’ll speak a little bit about that as well. So I’ll cap that off in the end. But basically, yeah, it’s definitely one of the deceivingly hardest dishes to make in our whole repertoire of dishes. Other dishes, like all of our noodles use some components of the spicy and the sour as well as our burger. You know, lamb burger is also spicy. Now, getting into the lamb burger, I’d like to talk a little bit about other things that people have come to know when they think of our cuisine. Different spices, spices that may not be from China originally. So Xi’an has its traditional local type of… like Chinese Han-ethnicity people, they eat certain things, but there’s also other ethnic groups in Xi’an such as the Hui. So the Hui are the Chinese Muslims that live in Xi’an. They’re a significant minority, and historically them, as well as other groups, have traveled through Xi’an from other parts of the world, really, bringing in different types of spices.
EL: And all those people have influenced your cooking.
JW: Yes. So our cooking, for example, the spicy cumin lamb, lamb is obviously very gamey, so to counter that, or not to counter. I don’t like to say “cover,” but more work with that gaminess, is cumin. Our cumin comes from India, just like it did in the old days. We use a lot of that, just as an example.
JW: A lot of other spices, which I can’t list all of them out yet. I know that-
EL: Well, that’s another thing I’m supposed to come away with.
JW: Oh, well, I’ll give you a few. Things like coriander we use a lot of, things like cardamom.
EL: You know, I think you’re shining me on. You can give me a few of them.
JW: I’ll give you a few, but there are no secrets, I’ll be honest. They’re typical of the spice mixes that are involved with our type of cuisine, certain types of meats. You’ll see those things being used to work with the flavors of the meats better. So definitely a lot of those are not from China, but there’s a lot of use of that in our cuisine as well.
EL: And you talk about the chili oil being at the heart of the sauces, at least. And that’s not even your father’s recipe, that’s your grandfather’s recipe.
JW: Yeah. I mean, so my father’s recipes are based off of family recipes. He’s made his own modifications through the years, but his basis is on things that my grandfather made. My grandpa likes to cook. He still cooks these days. He makes simple dishes, one or two, have a little Baijiu on the side, which is a Chinese liquor, very pungent liquor.
EL: He makes? Drinks?
JW: No, no, he makes the food.
EL: He makes Chinese hooch?
JW: That’d be dangerous. He definitely enjoys a sip of the strong liquor with some fish or some meats and some peanuts. That’s kind of his thing. So he’s always been that type of person to cook, and my father got a lot of that from him, even though they’re very different people, but I think it definitely comes from that family traditions.
EL: Yeah. What was it like for a young Chinese American to go into your dad’s business? I can’t imagine that was easy.
JW: Well, firstly, not even about the logistics of learning everything, just the feeling that you’re kind of giving up on the path that you’re supposed to be going for, the corporate way, the way that your parents have pushed you towards for a while. Whether or not they want you to remain on there, to yourself, you still feel like “Oh, man, I kind of failed.” It’s like a step back, going to the safe route of the family business, whether it’s a big corporation or a small restaurant, it still feels like a fallback, almost. So that was definitely kind of something I had to kind of live with through this process. But other than that, just going into the restaurant business by itself was very difficult for me because, as a kid, I never worked in a restaurant. Like you were saying before, my father didn’t want me to go into the restaurant business back when I was getting an education.
EL: Because he thought it was too hard.
JW: Yeah. It is hard, and I don’t think I could have handled that. I actually remember, when I was in college, I wanted to check it out because I was like, “Hm, what’s the restaurant business like?” So I actually applied for an internship with the restaurant company, with Hillstone, actually-
EL: That’s a famous restaurant internship program.
JW: Yeah. They have a great management program, and I wanted to get my feet wet. I don’t know why. I just thought it was interesting, but it was something I was thinking, “Oh, you know, my father has a restaurant. It’s not much of a restaurant at this point yet, but it’s still a restaurant, and I’m interested in that.” They came back to me and were like, “Do you have any restaurant experience?” I was like, “No,” so I didn’t really get a callback. But unfortunately that didn’t really pan out. So that was the extent of my foray into trying to do restaurant work.
JW: Yeah, legit, real restaurant work. But now that, back here… before I came back, on that phone call I had with my father telling him, “Hey, look, I’m going to come back. I kind of want to help expand the business because I think if I don’t help, this whole opportunity’s going to go away. Your restaurant’s going to get cobbed by someone, and they’ll get the following, and even if your food is better, people won’t hear about it. You’ll get muted, basically. I’ll help you. Let’s work together, and let’s expand the business.” Because for four years he maintained the business. He couldn’t really take it to the next level. So I think he was very receptive of that. But he told me, at that point, he’s like, “Well, okay, you can come back, and we’ll work together. I kind of expected you to call me. I was expecting your call.”
EL: He had to have put it like that.
JW: Yeah, yeah. He’s always anticipating everything, quote-unquote. But he was like, “Yeah, but when you come back, though, you’re going to have to work hard. You’re going to start from the bottom, you’re going to do everything yourself. It’s not going to be easy work, or I’m not going to go easy on you.” I said, “All right. I mean, it’s fine.” I moved from dorms to dorms before, moving boxes. That was hard. But it was much harder than I anticipated. So a lot of the first one to three years were really just figuring out the business, the daily operations in the store. Spent a lot of time in there, and yeah, so.
EL: Did you have daily clashes with your dad?
JW: Well, I wouldn’t call them classes, more like just… my dad’s not much of a teacher. He’s more of a, just, “Did you see that over there? Pick that up. Dump it in.” Like when we’re cooking, I’m like, “How much?” He’s like, “Just pour it. Just pour it.”
EL: I said “clashes,” not “classes.”
JW: Oh, clashes. Oh, sorry, I misheard. So clashes? At that point, I think, because I was still very new, I didn’t have much basis to go on to clash with him yet.
EL: To push back.
JW: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t know anything yet. So it was a lot of just like, “Okay, all right. Okay, I’ll listen to you.” But after the years went by and I started understanding the business a lot better, I had my own perspectives, and that’s when the clashes start more and more these days. We start to diverge a little bit more and more, yeah.
EL: Yeah. You know, Jason, we haven’t even gotten to how you pr-
JW: Xi’an Famous Foods?
EL: Xi’an Famous Foods because what it is today, which is a fast-growing empire of fast-casual restaurants. It’s gone way past probably what your dad thought it could be, and I’m sure you had quite a bit to do with it. It hasn’t even been discovered by non-Chinese people at this point, so we’re going to talk about all that in the next episode of Special Sauce.
JW: Yes, absolutely.
EL: So thank you, Jason Wang.
EL: And we will see you next time.
JW: All right. Thank you.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters.
JW: That was great. Yeah.