Way back in 2005, Xi’an Famous Foods had but one location, in what I like to call the 36th Chamber of the Golden Shopping Mall. It was presided over by an affable gent who went by the nom de cuisine Liang Pi, after his signature dish liang pi, cold skin noodles. Today it’s become a mini empire with five locations, upscale sister restaurant Biang, and a Brooklyn commissary.
Back in the day the most notable design elements were rickety folding stools and 100-pound bags of wheat flour arrayed like sandbags along the back wall. “My name is Liang Pi,” he would proudly say as he ladled out the dish. Many of his customers came from the same region and seemed absolutely thrilled to find a dish from back home in Queens. Legions of hungry regional Chinese cuisine fiends were pretty thrilled too. I’d never tasted anything like cold skin noodles before: squidgy, porous blocks of wheat gluten and chewy ribbons of wheat starch, tossed with bean sprouts, cilantro, slivers of cucumber and a “secret sauce” made from sesame paste, vinegar, and chili oil, among other things. “I have it for breakfast at least three times a week,” one fan told me.
This dish, the cumin lamb burger or “Chinese hamburger” as the Bluetooth wearing Liang Pi called it, and the hand-ripped cumin lamb biang-biang noodles would eventually form the basis of a culinary dynasty. One where my discovery of ma la yang lian, or spicy and tingly lamb face salad, would draw fellow explorers like Messrs. Bourdain and Zimmern. The mixture of ovine offal—creamy bits of tongue, crunchy pieces of ear and palate, and snow-white globules of fat—slicked with a chili oil dressing and tossed with bean sprouts, cilantro, red onions, jalapeños, and loads of garlic remains one of my favorite things to eat.
Liang Pi’s son, the marketing savvy Jason Wang would become a driving force behind that dynasty. One day the two took me through the process of making liang pi. First wheat flour dough is washed with cold water resulting in a starchy, white liquid that is left overnight to settle. The remaining substance is gluten, or mian chin, the “muscle of the flour.” The next day the white liquid is poured into shallow pans and steamed for about five minutes. The pans are then inverted and cooled with water. The resulting disk is then sliced to make springy wheat starch noodles. The porous, chewy gluten blocks and chewy noodles are then tossed with the other ingredients.
In between steps of the liang pi process the old man told me an apocryphal tale about the origin of his lamb face salad that involved a Tang dynasty emperor who asked his chef for a lamb dish with a lot of different flavors and textures that wasn’t fattening. Years later I read an interview with Jason that said the dishes origins lay in a surfeit of lamb heads.
I have since found out that Liang Pi’s real name is David Shi. These days he mostly works behind the scenes in the Brooklyn commissary though on occasion I’ll see him in Biang or on Main Street. I greet him with a friendly “Ni hao Dawei,” but I’ll always think of him as Liang Pi. As for his namesake dish, it’s as good as ever. I had a plate of it just the other day for breakfast in the 36th Chamber.
Xi’an Famous Foods, No.36, Golden Shopping Mall, Flushing