Anthony Bourdain Boosts Xi’an Famous Foods
After an unexpected visit from Anthony Bourdain seven years ago, Jason Wang transformed his father’s mall court eatery in Flushing, Queens, into a citywide food phenomenon
By Sade Strehlke in the Wall Street Journal
IN 2008, DAVID SHI, the chef at Xi’an Famous Foods in Queens, New York, called his son, Jason Wang, and said in Chinese, “There’s a tall, old white dude here with a film crew; do you know who he is?” He snapped a photo of the guest—stooped over a plate of lamb burgers seasoned with cumin and dressed with hot peppers and pickled jalapeños—and sent it to Wang, then a student at Washington University in St. Louis. Wang didn’t recognize him, but after showing the photo to his suite mates, he learned his name: Anthony Bourdain.
Celebrity chef, best-selling author and then-host of Travel Channel’s No Reservations, Bourdain was at Xi’an Famous Foods to film part of an episode on New York City’s outer boroughs, and as the title suggests, he had dropped by without warning. He wasn’t expecting much from the Chinese restaurant, but after sampling its surprisingly bold and spicy flavors, “It was love at first sight,” he says. When the episode aired a year later, Wang says he felt a tingle as he watched Bourdain biting into the burger and exclaiming, “I’ve never had anything like this before!”
Even though Xi’an Famous Foods, in Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall, was already a popular spot, Wang says, “It was encouraging to hear someone like Anthony praising our food.” Wang wasn’t interested in the family business, though. As an immigrant, he was beelining for a white-collar version of the American dream, and after graduating he accepted a position at Target’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. He planned to rise through the ranks; his family expected the same. But Bourdain’s visit was always on his mind, and he soon realized that if Xi’an Famous Foods wanted to capitalize on the show, it would have to do so right away. He told his father, “If I don’t do something, people will forget about us.” That fall, he was back in Queens working the line in his father’s kitchen.
Wang, who is now 26, has expanded Xi’an Famous Foods into a mini empire. This month, he opens its 10th location, adjacent to the Empire State Building. The restaurant is the largest Xi’an to date, at almost 2,000 square feet, and boasts two open kitchens, a second floor and a skylight. It joins five other Manhattan locations, two in Brooklyn, the original outpost in Queens, and Biang!, a more formal version of the eatery, also in Queens. While Wang’s five-year plan includes additional expansions to other U.S. cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, and eventually to the West Coast, he is fiercely protective of his brand and the quality of his food. He regularly turns down offers from venture capitalists to franchise and expand more quickly. “He’s smart,” Bourdain says. “One bad move, and you can’t be trusted anymore.”
One afternoon this winter, sitting in the restaurant’s Upper East Side outpost, Wang and Bourdain chat about their weekend plans and the latter’s newfound affection for jujitsu. Bourdain has kept in touch with Wang as much as his busy schedule allows. He recommended Xi’an Famous Foods for a Chase Sapphire commercial and for an episode of ABC’s Nightline. “This might sound sappy, but you have no idea what you’ve done for us,” says the hyper and baby-faced Wang. “I’ve meant every word,” says Bourdain. “For me, it’s a win for the good guys.”
Bourdain, who became famous traveling around the world sampling exotic dishes like cobra hearts and bull testicles on his television shows, says of Xi’an, “It’s the kind of dining room I like, the kind of smells I like, the no-pretense, available-to-everyone, democratic dining experience I believe in.” As a native New Yorker, he says he was well acquainted with Chinese food, “but this was a whole new spectrum of flavors.”
Those flavors originate from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in northwest China, where Wang emigrated from when he was 8. Unlike most Chinese food Americans eat—typically from southern coastal regions—dishes from Xi’an, at the mouth of the Silk Road, are spiked with Middle Eastern flavors. David Shi, convinced that non-native palates wouldn’t go for his hometown cuisine, first franchised a bubble-tea shop in 2005. “It wasn’t too successful,” says Wang, “so he tried different things to make some extra money, and started selling noodles and burgers on the side.” Soon, visitors from all over the city were forming long lines for his cold-skinned noodles, a dish that takes over two days to make, and Shi stopped selling tea.
“It’s a rare and remarkable thing to recognize what’s great about your personal culture and project that forward,” says Bourdain. “Any great entrepreneur tells you what you want before you know you want it,” he adds, comparing Wang to chefs like David Chang and Mario Batali , who, respectively, brought ramen and ravioli stuffed with brains into the American food consciousness.
All of Xi’an’s dishes are $10 or under. Even with the low prices, the current midtown location at East 45th Street grosses $1.4 million annually, and when visiting almost any location, you can expect a wait. Bourdain says Xi’an’s success is due partly to a shift in how Americans value food, placing authenticity and new tastes as high on their priority list as “fettuccine with white truffles at a restaurant with an extremely difficult reservation policy.” He continues, “People value the experience and are willing to wait three hours for good noodles; Jason knows this.”
So does Bourdain. Even while shooting two television shows per year—CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and The Taste, on ABC—he has been quietly courting Wang to be a featured vendor at a new dining experience he plans to bring to New York City this year. Named Bourdain Market, it will be based on the popular open-market hawker centers in Singapore, which carry a wide variety of inexpensive food in a communal dining hall. “Jason was pretty much the first person I thought of,” says Bourdain. “It will be fast and accessible foods, with hundreds of options. You can have roast goose; I can have beef rendang.” With that, a bowl of spicy lamb noodles emerges. Bourdain rubs his hands together. “Oh, this is going to be good.”