Known spicy food destination and noodle chain Xi’an Famous Foods has a message for its customers: “Not Spicy = Not As Good.” Over the summer, CEO Jason Wang posted a “personal message” to customers at the company’s 14 locations, warning people that if they order certain menu items as “not spicy,” they may be disappointed.
“I would never order my noodles completely ‘not spicy,’ because it will just taste too bland for me,” the letter says in red, with “noodles” and “too bland” underlined for emphasis. The letter has since picked up steam on Twitter and on the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, which features memes for a community of Asians in English-speaking countries.
Wang wrote the letter in August after seeing Yelp reviews complaining that the restaurant’s “food sucks because its so bland and tastes like nothing to me.” “To me, our food is spicy and savory, so I really didn’t get where they were coming from,” he says. Then, he realized that it’s probably because people are ordering noodles without any spice.
The restaurant offers its dishes with the option to customize spice, but the “spicy” level is the standard for how Wang’s father and restaurant founder David Shi intended the dish to be. Back when Shi ran only his original Flushing stand, he would either pressure people into getting at least a little bit of spice or add a tiny bit anyway, “just to make sure the food is good,” Wang says.
“When I asked him isn’t it an issue if he added in the spice when people didn’t want it? He responded, ‘It’s just a tiny bit, they won’t even notice, and it’ll taste better, and if they really don’t like it, I’ll just remake it,’” Wang says.
Those noodles, particularly the spicy cumin lamb ones, pushed the restaurant into fame and popularity. Its menu has since expanded to include all sorts of classic dishes from Xi’an, a city in northwestern China, and it’s gone from one location to more than a dozen across the city. With its boom in size, the audience has grown, too, including far more people who are even less familiar with the cuisine.
So for the modern day counter-service locations, Wang decided to write the personal message to push people to try at least a little bit of spice, even adding a photo of himself in hopes of making it stand out from the other signs and disclaimers in the store. (Xi’an Famous Foods also has long had posters noting that the noodles won’t be as good if customers wait too long to eat the them and a sign saying that “chili oil is your friend,” which Wang put up after people complained that food was too oily.)
They don’t add spice if customers still insist that they want the food without spice, but Wang warns people that they’re doing so “at your own discretion knowing that the food is going to be missing an important component,” suggesting that they go for “mildly spicy” if they can’t handle spice. And though in theory he could just not allow anybody to order noodles without spice, he says that people would “flip sh*t and send me hate mail” if he took away the option, and he’s not ready for that.
The sign is working, though: “I have had people message me saying they were glad to try the dishes with a bit of spice after always having it without any in the past,” Wang says.