Over the last six years, Xi'an Famous Foods has grown from a tiny stall in Flushing, to a mini chain with three locations in Manhattan and more on the way. The specialty here is hand-pulled noodles doused in a fiery secret sauce (Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are both big fans). The food is cheap, fresh, and prepared to order. Jason Wang is in charge of quality control, and his dad David is the chef and keeper of the family recipes.
Jason Wang, Manager: My father started the restaurant, and I was doing my own thing. I never did restaurant work before, but I was always working corporate jobs all throughout college. I actually helped out a little bit on winter break, and also I maintained the website before I graduated. Basically, I started doing work here after college because I just saw so much potential in the restaurant. A lot of people would see us as just a food stall, and I didn't see us as just a food stall. I saw us as all over New York and all over the U.S. Well, maybe not all over the US, that goes against some of our strategies, but at least in the major metropolitan areas.
As you expanded, was it difficult to keep the quality of the food the same? So, the recipes are basically family recipes, and my father keeps track of all of them. There are two things that help with controlling expansion. One is that although it looks like there's a lot of things on the menu, there are not that many dishes. [Points to the menu board] A lot of things repeat. This and that are the same, except one is soup and one is not. Lamb face and lamb leg are the same, but just different meats. So basically, there's a lot of overlap. Also, we try to keep the menu small but still have a lot of variety. You can't expand when you have like a hundred items — you would need experienced chefs at every location. And while our cooks are experienced at operations and keeping the recipes as close to my father's recipes as possible, it would be very difficult if they had to be in control of hundreds of dishes. And also, the spice mixes are made only by my father.
So, does your dad make those every day? Well, we run out of things really quickly, so everything is always fresh and he does make all the different sauces for all the different noodles every day, or every other day, depending on the popularity. He has a lot of work. He's still in the kitchen. I like to think of him as the chef and myself as the manager.
Tell us about your thoughts on expansion. Right now, we're just focused on New York. In my opinion, New Yorkers are more open to trying new things, and that goes for a lot of metro areas too, which is why I'm thinking of going to places like Boston and D.C. The west coast is great, but it's just so far away. But other than that, we do want to expand to other cities like Chicago and St. Louis, where I went to school. But, we have to do it one step at a time.
Where would you like to expand to first? I would love to go to LA or San Francisco, but it would be logistically difficult for us. So realistically, I'd say Boston or D.C.
What's the status of the East Williamsburg facility? We are working on that location, but we're not finished yet. So, that's been a while, and we can't wait until it's operational. Once it's up and running, we will be able to expand more rapidly and more efficiently. We're definitely looking in Midtown and Williamsburg. We've been in talks with a bunch of locations in those areas, and nothing has been signed, but we're very close. We want to find the right location and the right deal.
Are you still thinking about retail or something on a commercial level? You know, that's definitely something that my father and I have talked about. But just on the short term, it's something that we haven't considered very closely because it just seems so out there. Our factory is not ready, and our thing right now is doing restaurants because we have so much experience doing that. So, to do something else right now, that may distract us. But our sauces are easily packageable, and they're definitely unique, and people have requested to buy them and the raw noodles. It's interesting to see that and it's very encouraging, but we want to take it one step at a time.
Do you have any sort of role model? I would say that I've only recently found my role models. This might sound kind of bad when it comes to the foodie world, but my role models are Ray Kroc and Fred Turner, and even Howard Schultz. It's because of the manager side of me. Well, I really admire Ray Kroc because he's a business person, but he cared a lot for the business of McDonald's. When it started out, and when he was in the stores, he would just go right in and pick up the trash from the floor, even though he's the founder. I really admire that and I really admire the passion for his business. And Fred Turner was like his protege, pretty much. He took over the business after him. They were definitely pioneers of fast food, and fast food almost has this stigma in the foodie world, which is something that I want to kind of avoid with our business. Our food is street food, but it's very consistent like fast food. So, I like to think that we're trying to change the idea of fast food a little bit.
When you're not here, where do you like to eat? I eat here a lot, to be honest with you. But I live in Flushing right now, so I eat things like buns and dishes like tomato and eggs over rice — the very simple things. When I actually do have time to go out and eat, you know, I like to go to K-Town to get some Korean barbecue with my friends. It's just a nice time, you know — you get to drink and eat meat. And I really like Italian. Not just the traditional pasta and stuff, but from all regions of Italy. I've been wanting to try Porsena.
What's the sleeper hit of the menu? The cold skin noodles are something that recently caught on in Manhattan. I'd say that in Chinatown people know more about it, just because they're familiar with that dish. The lamb pao-mo soup is also very traditional — it's kind of a fun dish. You have the bread, which in China you would rip into pieces, then they boil it with the lamb soup and they bring it back to you. Although it's a little difficult to do that at our restaurants, we do cut up the bread for you, then we boil it together and serve it.