At Xi’an Eatery almost everyone is eating the same thing: biang biang noodles. You can see the enormous bowls on every table, each filled with noodles so wide and thick they fold over each other like ribbons.
With every weighty chopstick lift you can see what else is folded in there: glistening pork bits, strips of scrambled egg, minced garlic, shallots, currant-coloured chilli flakes and roughly diced bits of potato, tomato and carrot. Together it tastes like a smoky, spiced, umami-flooded bolognaise, and it feels like it could instantly cure the most desperate fatigue.
That’s the idea. These noodles were originally a high-energy staple of the working class in Shaanxi in north-west China. Now they’re a cheap fast food loved all over China and, increasingly, thanks to a growing community of Shaanxi Chinese, in Sydney.
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Xi’an Eatery does one of the best biang biang in the city. It makes its own thick-cut noodles daily (including a less common pale green variety blended with spinach) and serves each bowl traditionally – with a final splash of searingly hot oil. “The oil sort of burns the chilli [on the noodles] and brings the flavour out,” says owner Nick Shi.
All the ingredients are placed on top to get that final scorch, but they shouldn’t be eaten like that, Shi says. “You’re supposed to mix it. It’s a very important step. The mixing creates the flavour of the noodles.”
Nick Shi is chef Hong Shen’s son-in-law. Before coming to Sydney and taking over Rice Vermicelli King in Eastwood (Xi’an Eatery’s sister restaurant), Shen had worked for more than two decades in the kitchens of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. Biang biang noodles are her bread and butter.
Biang biang is one of four options every Shaanxi restaurant will serve. The others are rou jia mo (a doughy pita pocket-shaped bun typically filled with fatty pork and sometimes coriander or green capsicum); liangpi (a simple cold salad of noodles, cucumber, roast chilli oil and spongy cubes of wheat gluten); and a hearty lamb soup served with vermicelli noodles and a side of doughy bread to dip in the soup.
“The cold noodles are a classic Xi'an dish. In my view, this is very close to the version you’d get in Xi’an. It goes hand in hand with the rou jia mo – normally you'd order both together,” says Shi.
They’re the classics, but what makes Xi’an Eatery unique in Sydney is what else it serves. Like the semi-sweet dome of sticky rice with red bean paste wrapped in rolls of cured pork, the intensely rich marinated pork hock, and the sour but spicy soups. “The menu is quite specialised, people will say ‘Oh it’s a Chinese restaurant’, but the food is specific to the Xi'an region,” says Shi.
183D Burwood Road, Burwood
(02) 8056 4600
Mon to Thu 11.30am–9pm
Fri to Sun 11.30am–9.30pm instagram.com/xianeatery
This is another edition of Broadsheet’s Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on February 26, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.