The goal of the “Never Heard Of It” column is a simple one: to shine a light on the shockingly good hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the Lower Mainland that don’t get the attention they deserve. Dig into the delicious archive here.
Xi’an (pronounced “see-ahn”) – the capital of Shaanxi (“san-see”) province – is the likely birthplace of Chinese civilization. The city dates back over 3,000 years and was the headquarters of thirteen imperial dynasties. It is also the eastern terminus of the Silk Road trading route which extends through the Middle East and all the way to Europe. The religion of Islam travelled along with the silk and spices to this region, which resulted in a large ethnic Muslim-Chinese population. They gave to Xi’an’s cuisines its spices, such as cinnamon, star anise and, most notably, cumin — it’s primary characteristic, however, remains “suan la” (“sour and spicy”), which comes from the prodigious use of black vinegar and dried chilies. Xi’an is also widely thought to be the place where noodles first originated. Indeed, the region is so historically and gastronomically significant that I often wonder why its cuisine isn’t more prevalent. Even in China it isn’t nearly as well known as, say, the cuisines of Sichuan or Guangdong. Go figure!
We are blessed with a small handful of top notch Xi’an restaurants here in Vancouver. One such place is Joojak near the corner of Joyce and Kingsway — a tiny, cash-only restaurant with a bright red awning. It’s been in Collingwood (home to a burgeoning regional Chinese restaurant scene of its own) for a few years now. The owner says they serve food from the southern part of X’ian, from neighbouring Sichuan province, and Xinjiang to the west. (A reminder of how diverse, complex and fluid “Chinese” cuisine can be).
As an introduction to what the small restaurant has to offer, I recommend ordering some Xi’an signatures. Start off with a noodle dish such as Hand Pulled Noodle with Red Hot Chili Oil ($7.99/$9.95) – their take on ‘biang biang mian’ (it is also known to have the most complex Chinese characters at 58 strokes); or Noodles Topped with Vegetable and Pork ($8.50). A sign of a good Northern Chinese noodle is the resistant, gluten-y “chew”. Joojak’s pass this test easily. Alternatively – or as second noodle dish – try the Xi’an Cold Noodle; the noodles are made from wheat starch which, when cooked, have a pleasing, slightly gelatinous quality.
The Xi’an Pork Burger (“roujiamo”) belongs in the pantheon of the world’s greatest burgers. Here at Joojak, they make their own bun by flattening a spiral of dough and cooking it on a griddle until a few char marks appear. They fill it with long-braised pork shoulder meat subtly spiced with cumin, cinnamon and anise.
But perhaps the one dish that is truly representative of Xi’an cuisine is “paomo”, aka Pita Bread Soaked with Lamb Soup ($10.99). Traditionally, the pita bread is served on the side so the diner can shred it into the soup themselves. Here at Joojak (and at most Xi’an places in Vancouver, it seems), the bread already comes pre-cubed and mixed into a clear and surprisingly light mutton broth.
The Dumplings in Spicy Sour Soup (“suantang shuijiao”, $8.99) is probably my favourite comfort dish here. A good pairing with the Pork Burger and perfect for the upcoming winter months.
You will be hearing a lot more of Xi’an cuisine over the next little while as it’s definitely gaining a foothold. A number of new Xi’an-style restaurants are opening soon, including one that the former cooks at the now closed Sunny Spot Cafe are launching just a few minutes east of Joojak in Burnaby (in a strip mall across from Metrotown). These are exciting times, so watch this space!