This $4 plate of liang pi noodles ("cold skin noodles") single-handedly made up for all the bad Chinese food I have eaten in the past eight months.
First, a tangent. I spent eight months living and working in San Francisco. Apologies in advance to those in the Bay Area, but really, it seemed impossible to find great Chinese food there. Decent? Yes. Good? Occasionally. Downright atrocious? Far too common.
With such a big Chinese population, San Francisco should theoretically have Chinese food to rival Vancouver and New York. But what I found was mostly watered-down cooking, and too many restaurants advertising themselves as Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese-Sushi (what's up with that?) And yes, I also visited the purely Chinese restaurants, and quite popular ones at that.
A trusted friend who was a native San Franciscan brought me to his favorite dim sum spot in Chinatown which supposedly had the best har gow in the city; everything was overly greasy, including the signature dish. Over Chinese New Year, I went with relatives (who are originally from Hong Kong) to a popular dim sum spot on Geary Boulevard in the Outer Richmond; it was the best in the area, but still left us all craving food that is less heavy-handed. I also tried a few other spots in the Richmond and Inner Sunset, but soon gave up and retreated to the trusted cocoon of Mexican restaurants for casual meals.
Why is Chinese food in San Francisco so disappointing? I posed this question to too many people in the past few months. I expected to called insane for refuting this popular idea that SF is a haven for all foods Asian, an idea that has been pounded into us by magazine article after magazine article. Surprisingly, and fortunately, most had similar thoughts.
A roommate in SF, who has traveled extensively through Asia, said, "It's not just Chinese food. I can't stomach the Thai food here. Everything is so bland." A psych professor from Hong Kong who I met at a party agreed with my (possibly controversial) theory. "Look at Vancouver and New York. Almost all the restaurant owners and chefs are recent immigrants. In San Francisco, most of them have been here for generations. Over time, you either adapt your cooking to local palates, or just forget what food in the home country is like."
(This is not to say that all Asian food in SF is bad. Japanese is good, Burmese is excellent, and this particular Cambodian restaurant still makes me sigh with happiness.)
In short, it is much easier to slack on the authenticity if all your competitors are doing the same. (Also, feel free to correct me, San Franciscans.) I fully admit to not being a local (although many of the people I talked to were), so I may have missed that wonderful little hole-in-the-wall on the edge of town that required a car or five bus transfers to get to. But in the end, most of the popular Chinese, Thai, and Indian restaurants I have tried in San Francisco made me wish I were in New York, L.A., or even Boston. So I am back in New York, and making up for lost time.
In my absence, Xi'an Famous Foods opened (in three locations, nonetheless) and developed a huge following. If there had been a place for good Shaanxi-style food when I last lived in New York in '07, I must have missed it. Back then, we had great Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujianese, Sichuan, Hunan, and even a few Dongbei restaurants. Now, with the addition of Shaanxi and Yunnan restaurants, New York is becoming as diverse as Beijing for Chinese food. (With no recycled cooking oil controversy to boot.)
So, that was a long meandering way of saying it's good to be home.
It's good to be able to hop on a subway, head to Flushing, and brush up on Mandarin. It's good to sit down with a juicy cumin lamb "burger" and chewy liang pi (wide mung bean) noodles with tofu, doused with mild chili sauce so good you want to lick the plate. It's good that the cook's idea of "mild" will still make you gulp down a 16 oz. bottle of water.
And it's good that only an hour later, you can be on the N train crossing over the Manhattan Bridge, watching the sunset and wondering whether you could still live anywhere else.
Xian Famous Foods
Golden Shopping Mall
41-28 Main Street, Basement #36
133-31 39th Ave. #FC-10
88 East Broadway #106
New York, NY