The Untold Truth Of Xi'an Famous Foods

Take a gander at any list of the best Chinese restaurants in America, and you're bound to come across the name Xi'an Famous Foods. While it may be relatively unknown to those outside its hometown of New York City, this chain of fast-casual eateries is no secret to locals.

After opening in 2005, Xi'an (pronounced "shee-AHN") Famous Foods exploded in popularity in large part thanks to its authenticity (and a boost from a popular chef-turned-television host). The restaurant, which is owned and operated by a father-son duo of Chinese Americans, serves traditional northern Chinese dishes, including its signature hand-pulled noodles and stewed pork flatbread burgers.

Fast-forward to 2022, and Xi'an Famous Foods boasts nearly a dozen locations throughout New York City. It's not uncommon for lines to stretch out the door at any of these restaurants (via the New York Post; Nation's Restaurant News). But even the most ardent patrons likely don't know the full story behind this culinary phenomenon. From its underground origins and hopes of expanding outside the Empire State to its connection with the late Anthony Bourdain and the owner's plea for spicy orders, here is the untold truth of Xi'an Famous Foods.

Xi'an Famous Foods started in a basement

Many businesses have humble beginnings, but when we say Xi'an Famous Foods started in the basement, we mean it — literally. In 2005, Chinese immigrant David Shi opened a 200-square-foot food stall in the Golden Shopping Mall in the Flushing section of Queens, New York City (via Xi'an Famous Foods). According to Forbes, the tiny eatery was originally a bubble tea shop, with Shi selling authentic, handmade food of his homeland on the side. "It wasn't even about making money back then," Shi's son and company co-owner Jason Wang told the outlet. "We kind of miss this food ourselves and we want to eat it at home. So it just happened to be something we were making and just selling."

Shi soon realized that focusing on the food, not the bubble tea, would make for a better plan. Unlike most Chinese restaurants in the United States that typically center around Cantonese dishes, Xi'an Famous Foods' menu is based entirely on the cuisine of northern China. As more and more people from that part of the world immigrated to New York City, which is precisely what happened in the early 2000s, they inevitably began searching for familiar food. That journey ultimately led many to the basement of a Queens shopping mall. Slowly but surely, Xi'an Famous Foods was moving up in the world.

Xi'an Famous Foods is named after a city in China

What's in a name? A lot, apparently – at least when it comes to Xi'an Famous Foods. The restaurant's name is a nod to the owners' family and the region responsible for creating the delectable cuisine that has made Xi'an Famous Foods a New York City institution.

Xi'an is a city located in northwestern region of China that boasts a long and storied history. According to the restaurant's website, it was China's first capital city. It also served as the starting point of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route. This fortuitous location, which had travelers from near and far passing through, helped the city develop a unique Asian cuisine that fused Chinese and Middle Eastern flavors. Because spices were heavily traded commodities back in the day, and noodles have long been favored over rice in northern China, Xi'an became well known for its spicy noodle dishes. Such meals are well-represented on Xi'an Famous Foods' menu, including its signature Liang Pi "Cold-Skin Noodles."

Xi'an also happens to be where David Shi and Jason Wang were born and raised. In fact, the restaurant started when Shi's homesickness led him to cook and share the food of his homeland with fellow Chinese immigrants in New York City. Xi'an Famous Foods claims it was the first restaurant in the United States to offer Xi'an cuisine.

The chain exploded in popularity thanks to Anthony Bourdain

Two years after opening, Xi'an Famous Foods was still a relatively unknown entity operating out of a mall basement. That all changed one fateful day in 2007 when Anthony Bourdain visited the restaurant to film an episode of his hit show "No Reservations" (via the Huffington Post). Once the world saw Bourdain proclaim Xi'an Famous Foods to be "unbelievable" as he chowed down on a spicy cumin lamb burger, the tiny, basement eatery was no longer a secret.

Diners flocked to the tiny restaurant, Jason Wang recalled in a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post. Soon, Xi'an Famous Foods expanded to more locations, and the rest is history — all thanks to Bourdain. "Tony was our company's 伯乐 (bo le) ― a discoverer and promoter of potential," Wang wrote. "Without a bo le, our company would not enjoy the level of success we achieved. And through this role, he also changed my family's life."

Years after Bourdain's initial visit, he and Wang were interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Afterward, Wang took the opportunity to express his gratitude for everything the television host had done for his family. In classic Bourdain fashion, he humbly replied, "I'm just calling out good food like it is, that's all."

Xi'an Famous Foods donated more than $70,000 to suicide prevention

News of Anthony Bourdain's death in 2018 sent shockwaves across the food world, media landscape, and households across the country that loved watching the famed chef's culinary journeys. While Bourdain garnered legions of fans, few people were more saddened by his passing than Jason Wang. "Today's a day of extreme sadness for us here at Xi'an Famous Foods," Wang wrote in a tribute posted on Instagram. "I've lost a dear friend today, and we mourn with the rest of the world."

The "No Reservations" host played a pivotal role in Xi'an Famous Foods' meteoric rise. To honor Bourdain, he announced Xi'an Famous Foods would donate 100% of its net sales on June 8, 2018 — the day of Bourdain's death. All the money would be given to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Three days later, Wang revealed on Instagram that the restaurant raised $73,509.76, selling double the number of dishes during dinner than it normally does. "This is a tribute of thanks to our friend Tony who made it possible for us to achieve this," Wang told Eater. "It is moving to see the amount of support people have shown, and it sure shows how many people loved Tony and how many of our fans found their way to us through Tony's recommendation."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Xi'an Famous Foods closed several locations due to COVID-19

Few businesses were impacted by COVID-19 as severely as those in the restaurant industry, and Xi'an Famous Foods was no exception. Prior to the pandemic, the Chinese food chain had 14 locations throughout New York City, according to Eater. In March 2020, the chain closed all of its restaurants and laid off roughly 200 employees. Jason Wang cited lost revenue and public safety as reasons behind the closings. "We don't want to contribute to the pandemic," he said at the time. "This is beyond sales. There's so much we don't seem to know about the spread of this virus."

While many restaurants began reopening in the summer of 2020, Xi'an Famous Foods announced in June it would permanently close its Greenpoint, Brooklyn location. "It's going to be almost a certainty that many of our stores won't reopen," Wang said. But just a few months later, the chain reversed course and reopened the store (via Greenpointers). Unfortunately, as Wang suspected, several locations have indeed closed for good. As of June 2022, only eight of the original 14 restaurants have reopened, according to the company's website. The chain has also added a new location in the Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and are in the process of opening a second restaurant in Flushing, Queens. 

Xi'an Famous Foods began selling meal kits in wake of COVID-19

With all of its restaurants temporarily closed due to COVID-19, Xi'an Famous Foods needed a new way to get food to customers and generate money. A few months after the shutdown in March 2020, Xi'an began selling noodle kits to customers to make at home (via Eater). The kits come in beef, pork, vegetable, and vegan varieties and include fresh vegetables, Xi'an Famous Foods' stew, spices, noodle dough pieces, and, most importantly, instructions on how to properly pull the noodles as they do in the restaurant. The product line has since grown to include three varieties of dumplings.

While meal kits might not sound groundbreaking, it marked the first time Xi'an food could be eaten off restaurant premises. Prior to the pandemic, the chain didn't even offer delivery because the owners felt the quality of the food would diminish if it wasn't eaten right away. Meal kits, however, offer the best of both worlds. "We've long pushed back on delivery of our food as it compromises our quality and taste," Xi'an CEO Jason Wang said in a statement at the time. "Meal kit deliveries is not in contradiction of that at all, but is an affirmation of it. They allow for folks get to have the fun of pulling noodles themselves at home and to enjoy the dishes freshly pulled like in the stores." 

Xi'an Famous Foods spoke out against anti-Asian attacks

The number of anti-Asian assaults skyrocketed after the emergence of COVID-19 (via NPR). Xi'an Famous Foods experienced this troubling trend firsthand. In March 2021, the restaurant chain's CEO Jason Wang spoke publicly about the issue alongside a group of Asian business leaders in New York. Included in his message was news that two of his employees had been victims of attacks (via Gothamist). Both attacks occurred during the day. In one instance, a male employee was getting dirty looks from a stranger while riding on the subway. The stranger followed the employee off the train and punched him in the face. 

The disturbing events led Wong to adjust the chain's hours. "We wanted to limit our hours in order to make sure our employees are not going to be stranded alone somewhere at 11 p.m. on a platform alone on a subway where no one can help them if something were to happen," he said at the time. Previously, the restaurants were open every day until 9:30 or 10:30 p.m. To prevent employees from being out late at night, all Xi'an Famous Foods locations now close at 8:30 p.m. (They also remain closed on Sunday.) "When these things happen it makes our employees feel uneasy to go to work. Uneasy to take the train, uneasy to walk outside," Wang said. "That's really a problem because people aren't able to live the way they usually live."

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

The chain's owners have opened other restaurants

With Xi'an Famous Foods' incredible success, it makes sense that founder David Shi and his son Jason Wang would try their hand with other restaurants — which is precisely what they've done. But it's only been with limited success. 

Most notably, the pair opened the full-service restaurant Biang! in late 2015 (via EV Grieve). The eatery offered many of the same dishes available at Xi'an Famous Foods but in a more formal setting. Unfortunately, the store lasted just 15 months before shuttering in March 2017.

Unlike Biang!, other supplementary restaurants have been secretive — even to one of the owners. In 2012, Shi opened a stall at a food court in Queens, unbeknownst to Wang (via Eater New York). A few years later, Shi established a second clandestine outpost, just down the street from a Xi'an Famous Foods' location in Manhattan's Chinatown. The restaurant, called Qin Ling, served skewers, dumplings, and noodles. After Wang found out about it, he and his father came to the agreement that the eatery wasn't viable, so the pair shut it down and moved the nearby (and very busy) Xi'an Famous Foods location into the bigger space that Qin Ling occupied. Shi and Wang didn't leave their old building dark. The pair started a brand-new restaurant, Dumpling Spot, in early 2017. Alas, like all of these side hustles, the dumpling-themed business has ceased operation (via Yelp!).

Xi'an Famous Foods hopes to expand outside of NYC

Xi'an Famous Foods has taken over New York City in a big way, but its footprint ends at the city line. It has no restaurants outside of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

That could soon be changing, however. On April 1, 2022, Xi'an Famous Foods announced on Instagram that it would be expanding to Philadelphia. "We are excited to show Philly folks what they've been missing out on," the post read. "Stay tuned for our location and grand opening promo!"

Wanting to know whether this was nothing more than an April Fool's joke, What Now Philly reached out to company CEO Jason Wang. 

"[It] was done in the spirit of April Fool's, but at the same time, it's not fully untrue," he said of the post. Wang went on to reveal that he had been visiting Philadelphia on nearly a weekly basis for several months. He believes the southeastern Pennsylvania city is very likely to be home to the first Xi'an Famous Foods restaurant outside of the Big Apple. Wang did not, however, give a timeline for the expansion, so don't hold your breath noodle fans. For the time being, New York City is the place to be.

The chain's owner implores customers to add more spice

They say the customer is always right. But if you're ordering your Xi'an Famous Foods noodles "not spicy," the chain's CEO Jason Wang is not afraid to say that you are, in fact, wrong. In the summer of 2019, Wang posted a letter in all its restaurant locations urging customers to keep the spicy dishes spicy, according to Eater New York. Under the headline, "Not Spicy = Not As Good," Wong warned restaurant goers that if they order its food without any spice they would miss an important component. "I would never order my noodles completely 'not spicy,' because it will just taste too bland for me," he wrote.

The personal message, which included Wang's photo, was in response to several Yelp! reviews that described Xi'an Famous Foods menu as bland. "To me, our food is spicy and savory, so I really didn't get where they were coming from," Wong told Eater. He then realized the customers were probably ordering food without spice, as they might with other cuisines, and unknowingly removing all the flavor from the noodles.

Wong suggests guests order their food at least mildly spicy if they're worried about the heat level. If anecdotal evidence is worth anything, they'll likely be glad they did. "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 said.

Collaboration with a New York City pizzeria on new chili pizza

When the originators of fusion cuisine devised the new culinary trend, they were likely thinking a little more high-end than dousing Chinese chili oil on a pizza. But that's exactly what you'll find at Paulie Gee's pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This culinary masterpiece, named Xi'an Famous Pizza, is filled with gouda, spinach, olive oil, ground lamb, and Xi'an Famous Foods chili oil and crisps.

The pizza collaboration was born in early 2022, according to Greenpointers, when Xi'an owner Jason Wang wanted to do something special to honor the Year of the Tiger. He didn't need to look far for inspiration. Xi'an has a location in Greenpoint, so he reached out to his neighborhood pizza joint. Wang offered to send Paulie Gee's some samples of Xi'an's famous chili oil and crisps in hopes of collaborating. Paulie Gee's was in and went to work experimenting on a new pizza. "I wanted to stay true to Jason's recipes and create something that reflected what he does there," owner Paul Giannone said. He added lamb, knowing that the meat is heavily featured on the Xi'an menu, and he chose spinach because the spinach dumplings at Xi'an are his personal favorite.

Put it all together and you get a delectable slice of pizza that has been well-received by customers. Giannone said he hopes the pie "will be around for many Lunar New Years." We're sure every pizza lover in New York agrees.

The owner has publicly shamed unruly customers

When you step inside a Xi'an Famous Foods restaurant you better be on your best behavior — or prepare to be publicly shamed. On more than one occasion, owner Jason Wang has posted video of disorderly customers on social media.

In 2017, Wang uploaded a video to Facebook showing diners verbally attacking two Black employees during a racially charged exchange. Wang explained to Eater that the incident occurred just before closing when the cashier asked the customer to pay by credit card as the cash register had already been closed. "I want to at least try to get some sense of justice by spreading awareness by highlighting how close racism still hits home," Wang wrote on Facebook. His post was updated the following month with news that the customers had written an apology.

Wang was at it again in July 2021. He posted a YouTube video of two women who allegedly broke into one of the chain's locations after midnight. The pair attempted to cook their own food before leaving with a bag of dumplings. "While we can respect that one has cravings for our food late at night, it is still trespassing, and it's really not OK for you to feel so entitled to be able to waltz into a commercial kitchen," Wang wrote in a message posted with the video. Two days later, according to an update on the post, the suspects provided compensation and one emailed Wang an apology.