If the menu at Xi’an Gourmet in Rockville looks familiar, don’t worry, you’re not hallucinating on chile oil. The menu comes from the same team behind Panda Gourmet, the brusque, unpredictable but often brilliant Sichuan and Shaanxi outpost tucked into the ground floor of a Days Inn that doubles as a homeless shelter.
Opened quietly in April, though it didn’t officially debut until July, Xi’an Gourmet benefits from its suburban location, where so many East Asian dishes can be had in and around Rockville: Yunan crossbridge noodles, beef tripe with pork blood in Sichuan sauce, Hong Kong-style noodle soups and Shanghai soup dumplings that explode with liquid so hot it nearly scalds your tongue. Xi’an Gourmet feels right at home here, catering to a broad Chinese community that demands the best from its restaurants.
Xi’an Gourmet also makes for a more hospitable space than the dining room over on New York Avenue NE, where the owners have struggled to overcome the motor-lodge wheeze of the place. The new spot incorporates slatted-wood room dividers, stone veneers and wall decorations that provide a sense of place in an otherwise strip-mall-intensive landscape: There are Chinese opera masks, Chinese knotting and richly detailed drawings from master artists such as Haixia He. Even the signage outside features the lettering of a Chinese artist who typically charges more than $7,000 per letter.
“He didn’t charge us. Just for friends,” co-owner Joseph Huang says of the characters that spell out “Sichuan and Shaanxi famous foods.”
Of course, the restaurant’s common name invokes the ancient city of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province and the home of those ghostly terra-cotta warriors, whose sole duty over the centuries has been to protect emperor Qin Shi Huang from the unknown enemies of the afterlife. The name also validates a cuisine that had been long undervalued in the United States until Xi’an Famous Foods in New York and Northwest Chinese Food in College Park taught us to embrace the suan la, or sour and spicy, flavors of Xi’an and Shaanxi cooking.
One of the signature dishes of Xi’an — both the city and restaurant — is liang pi, a cold noodle appetizer that offers a blunt introduction to suan la. The dish is like an ancient forerunner to the deconstruction techniques that would, in part, define molecular gastronomy: The starch from wheat-flour dough is separated and steamed into noodles, while its leftover gluten is transformed into croutonlike cubes. When coated with chile oil and aged black vinegar, the thick-cut noodles and gluten squares provide a welcome chill and chew to the acid and spice of the sauces. The dish is an injection of pure adrenaline.
Don’t look for “liang pi” noodles on the menu, though. Huang and his chefs, Shibao Hu and Zhaoxing Wang, both transfers from Panda Gourmet, have devised an expansive set of dishes that draw from Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces. Sometimes the crew transliterates a dish’s name in a way that requires decoding at the table. Liang pi noodles, for instance, are labeled as Shaanxi cold-steamed noodles. Yet whatever they’re called, you should get yourself some. They’re not just a shock to the system; they’re the only noodles made in-house, despite a long list of options, a reflection of Xi’an’s colder climate, which is more suitable for wheat than rice.
Sometimes a dish’s name doesn’t align with its preparation, which is only a problem, I guess, if you’re expecting the suan-la sensations associated with Xi’an and you’re slipped the flavors of Sichuan instead. It’s a weird thing: It’s like a victimless bait and switch.
Take the whole tilapia submerged in a gurgling sauce. The dish is billed, rather generically, as “Shaanxi flavor fish.” The actual entree is something else altogether: A buffet-sized chafing dish is paraded to the table, where its watered-down chile oil bubbles away, transforming cubes of soft tofu and fragile lengths of tilapia into morsels that pack the unmistakable ma-la punch of Sichuan cooking. The longer you let that chafing dish roil, the better those spicy-and-numbing flavors penetrate the otherwise milquetoast tilapia, down to the juicy bits that cling to the fish carcass, where some of the best eating can be found.
Many of my favorite dishes are tucked into the latter pages of the menu, where you’ll find plates under such headings as Sichuan chef’s specials, country-style entrees and Shaanxi snacks. The superb beef soup, which comes bloated with par-baked pieces of unyeasted pita, is a variation on a classic Xi’an dish, the flatbread behaving more like chewy pieces of pasta than soup sponges. The spicy trotters are a brooding plate of pig’s feet, at once chewy and gelatinous, which I’ve come to view favorably as a kind Sichuan bone marrow. The housemade wontons in chile oil are so meaty they practically burst the seams on their wrappers, apparently as eager as I am to dip into the viscous oil infused with ginger, garlic, star anise, cumin and the other aromatic stars of the Sichuan pantry.
If the kitchen has a fault, it’s occasional timidity. The cumin beef burger lacks bite, largely because its chile peppers have been stripped of both seeds and stems, rendering them toothless. The Shaanxi iron pan lamb has a similar issue — at least on first taste. The dish requires a tabletop butane burner, on which rests a cast-iron pot loaded with lamb and potatoes simmering in a brown gravy. The dish looks like something out of my Midwestern youth: There’s not a chile husk in sight, and there’s no hint of black vinegar, either. But as I continued to poke through these tender chunks of meat and spuds, I noticed a pepper buzz that grew increasingly louder, like a slow-approaching siren. It was time-release heat.
With their second restaurant, Huang and his partners seem to be moving toward a formula that can be replicated at will, like a Shaanxi-accented version of chef Peter Chang’s empire. Huang already has plans to expand, and he says each new spot will adopt the Xi’an, not Panda, Gourmet handle. It seems too many people think his first restaurant is part of the glop-forward Panda Express chain, although, God knows, one visit to Haung’s establishment would quickly set those slackers straight.
316 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-875-5144; xiangourmetrestaurant.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a 0.5-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.75 to $22.95 for appetizers, snacks and soups; $7.95 to $32.95 for entrees and rice/noodle dishes.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the masks on the wall and the nearest Metro station. This version has been updated.