What are New York’s most vital summertime foods? A smoky pile of jerk chicken from Peppa’s in Crown Heights, without question. An icy glass of Doogh from Ravagh in Midtown, for sure. A scoop of banana gelato from Superiority Burger, a bag of chile-slicked mangoes from a Garment District street hawker, or a burger from the JFK Shake Shack before hopping on a flight? Yep, all of those too.
I could add 100 to that list, but let me focus on one particular favorite: The (vegan) liang pi at Xi’an Famous Foods, a gloriously slurpable pile of wheat noodles and gluten slices drenched in chile oil and served on a compostable paper plate. It might be New York’s single finest noodle preparation for days above 85 degrees.
The dish garnered nightly lines when Xi’an debuted it in a bubble tea shop in 2005 at the Golden Flushing Mall. Nearly 15 years later, with nine locations in Manhattan, two in Queens, and one in Greenpoint, Xi’an still typically sells out of them at night, says Jason Wang, who runs the growing empire with his father, David Shi.
Liang pi is a staple street food in China’s Northwest Shaanxi province; the name translates as cold skin noodles. “The reason it’s called that is because it is generally served room temperature for the best texture, and the bounciness and chewiness of the ribbons of noodles is like ‘skin’ or ‘rubber,’” says Wang.
The cooking process is laborious. The liang pi are made by washing wheat flour, a process that produces a starchy water that’s steamed in pans, cooled, and sliced into long, thin noodles. The solid remnants of the flour, in turn, are cut into cubes of seitan. Staffers mix this all with sliced cucumbers, garlic puree, bean sprouts, and fistful of cilantro — and then douse everything in vinegar and chile oil.
The sauce, with its sour-spicy overtones — a signature of Shaanxi cuisine — only loosely adheres to the cool, bouncy noodles. It’s not until patrons start masticating on the spongy seitan that the heat and acidity really starts to vibrate on the tongue. And just when things become intensely heady with cumin and other spices, the crunch of the vegetables and perfume of the cilantro paves the way for repeat slurping.
The noodles burden the stomach as heavily as a sack of ballgame peanuts or a beachside water ice, which is to say one can virtually consume them ad infinitum — as is appropriate for the best hot-weather foods.
If anything, the liang pi are thirst quenchers in their own right, a solid-state beverage to cleanse the palate after a few bites of Xi’an’s richer hand-torn lamb noodles. They cost between $6 and $7, depending on the location — less than half the price of a lousy mojito at a packed rooftop bar — and need nothing else other than a cool cup of jasmine tea. A plate of them would be just as appropriate before a Broadway show as during a train ride to the Jersey Shore. They’re a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).