Language barriers are the frayed threads via which a review of even the most awesome, unusual, exotic hole-in-the-wall restaurant can come rapidly undone. My calls seeking an in-depth interview with the chef or owner of Xi’an Sizzling Woks, a six-month-old named for the capital of the Shaanxi province in west-central China, went unreturned even as my deadline thundered nearer. My phone’s refusal to ring was a “Bridge Out” sign to my runaway train.
So I can’t tell you exactly how Xi’an’s noodle masters fashion the dumplings for the wonton soup — sorcery, perhaps? — but I can tell you that you won’t find lighter ones in Chinatown. (The dawn-gold broth, however, needed salt.) I can’t tell you exactly how duck is perfumed with tea so intensely without drying it out, only that this meat was incredibly moist under a crackling tarp of skin. (But watch out for bone shards.) I can’t tell you exactly what type of dried red chilies are loaded into the Chongqing chicken, only that their husky, toasted heat makes a great complement to the crunchy, popcorn-style poultry.
The food of Xi’an overlaps a bit with that found in Sichuan cities some 500 miles to the southwest; the Chongqing chicken brought to mind a milder Han Dynasty dry pot. A Middle Eastern influence also lingers in the cuisine, notable in the recurring presence of lamb and cumin: A solid turn of cumin lamb appears as a stir-fry, a lamb-and-beef soup is thickened with torn pita; there’s even a cumin-spiked hamburger.
Viscous hot-and-sour soup was more the former than the latter, a pure expression of peppercorns. Wok-blackened green beans retained their snap. The Xi’an pancake was a thin crepe rolled around potato batons; I drenched it in chile oil. The long menu has so much I still want to try — house-made biang biang noodles, triple-protein crispy rice, pork kidney in spicy sauce, if only for the novelty.
XI’AN SIZZLING WOKS | 902 Arch St., 215-925-1688, xiansizzlingwoks.com. Hours: Tue.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $1.50-$9.95; entrees, $6.95-$15.95.
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