Jason Wang, CEO of Xi’an Famous Foods, took a business that his father David “Liang Pi” Shi started in the 36th chamber of Flushing’s fabled Golden Shopping Mall, and made it truly famous spawning a mini-empire, specializing in cold skin noodles—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—and other regional specialties. The 25-year old noodle mogul took a break from the Forbes 30 under 30 Conference and was kind enough to answer 7 Questions.
Tell me about the two new Xi’an Famous Foods stores you have in the pipeline? How will they differ from
the other locations?
They’ll be very similar to our later locations in terms of the food, but each location has its own feel. The new Greenpoint location, for example, will have a backyard dining area, the first one of Xi’an Famous Foods with one, and the upcoming 34th Street location will have the biggest space out of all of our stores, with a mezzanine level featuring skylights.
You went to culinary school for a little bit, did that change your approach to the cuisine at Xi’an Famous Foods?
It widened my view of cuisine a bit, as it gave me an idea of how western cuisine is prepared, the fundamentals, and how in the end, it is still similar in some ways to Chinese cuisine. While it did not directly affect our ways of preparing our foods, it does make me more aware of possibilities and possible future applications of western approaches to our eastern ways of cooking.
What’s in your refrigerator right now?
A lot of things that I should throw out. Edible things include kefir drinks, Just Mayo (courtesy of Andrew Zimmern), eggs, and chicken and rice from Abel’s on 49th and 6th (not the Halal Guys).
Do you have a favorite junk food or guilty pleasure?
Does chicken and rice count as junk food? If so, yes, that. Otherwise, I like the little Asian seaweed sheet snacks. I recently had some Thai ones (not the usual Japanese ones) that were quite spicy and good (courtesy of my friends at Singha Beer)
Which of the Chinatowns in New York City do you like best and why?
Each Chinatown has its own flair. I find myself in Elmhurst Chinatown more than the others because it is the fourth one, and it is the smallest one so far, but it is close to where I live in Long Island City, and I can easily drive there for lunch. Other Chinatowns are too crazy sometimes.
I go to Ayada in Elmhurst quite often for pad khee mao or drunken noodles. And pho bang for a quick and easy pho.
Do you have a favorite menu item at XFF?
It’s hard to beat the Liang Pi “Cold-Skin” Noodles. It’ll always be one of my favorites. Runner ups would be the spicy and tingly beef boodles and our spicy and sour lamb dumplings.
As far as I am concerned you and your father David are the O.G.’s of Xi’an cuisine in the United States. Now there are several other restaurants like Gene’s Flatbread Café in Boston serving the cuisine, what do you make of that? Do you think that Xi’an food will ever be as popular as Sichuan cuisine or Cantonese for that matter?
Frankly, every Xi’an-styled restaurant in the US that has had any note of success is capitalizing on the wave we created, just like all of the Cronut imitators. When someone takes my business name, or logo, or even uses photos of our food as their own, that shows to me there’s no heart in the food and the business, it’s merely a “look, they are making money, let’s do that, too” type of thing.
I think Xi’an food has a lot of potential, but Xi’an food is also not a model that can be expanded as easily as Cantonese or Sichuan foods. These two cuisines have schools, and are more established in China. Our foods are street foods, there’s no set schools, it’s just things that family members teach younger family members, for the most part. Could that change? Sure, but that’s the status quo right now.