Less then a year ago I didn't even know Shaanxi cuisine was a thing. Then Xian Kitchen opened in the Convoy District and my eyes and palate were opened to Chinese flavors and textures I did not know. Now, we have a second Shaanxi restaurant, and Shan Xi Magic Kitchen (4344 Convoy St.) may be even better than the first.
Traditionally, there are eight major regional cuisines in China: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang. Notably missing is Shaanxi. It shouldn't be. The food of Shaanxi province, which lies just to the north of Sichuan province, tends toward the spicy as well as salty and savory flavors. Shaanxi cuisine favors the use of noodles rather than rice, lamb (and mutton) instead of beef and is somewhat heavier than more familiar Chinese culinary traditions.
There is no dish more representative of Shaanxi cuisine than biang biang noodles: thick, wide and flat, hand-pulled noodles sitting in a pool of soy and vinegar based sauce with garnishes of chili powder, garlic and scallions. The Magic Kitchen's noodles are, hands down, superior to that of Xian Kitchen, with an al dente texture that made every bite a pleasure. Its garnishes were also a bit less oily, though the soy-vinegar sauce was perhaps a tad one-dimensional.
Another great noodle dish coming out of the Magic Kitchen is Liang Pi cold skin noodles. Lighter and thinner than the biang biangs, the "cold skin" noodles are served cold, tossed with spongy blocks of wheat gluten, bean sprouts, slivers of cucumber and a sauce of sesame paste, vinegar, chili oil and a bit of soy. They are addictive, as Tony Bourdain (an expert on the subject) has opined: "These noodles are like a drug, I can't stop."
We also ordered "hand pulled noodles with spicy cumin beef." What came out didn't look like hand pulled noodles and sure tasted like lamb, not beef. The English language skills of the wait staff are, perhaps, sub-optimal. No matter: It was my favorite noodle dish on the day. The earthy flavors of the cumin and the fresh sweetness of the peppers played together well in front of the toothsome noodles.
If there's one thing the Magic Kitchen does nearly as well as its noodles it is vegetables. Dry-fried green beans—a dish from neighboring Sichuan province—come out with blistered (if not exactly crispy) skin and slightly caramelized, with chili, garlic and a hit of soy. Cold stir-fried lotus roots are served in a light vinegar sauce, showing off the crunchy texture of the vegetables. Seaweed from the appetizer bar is another good starter. But it is the spicy sautéed cabbage that is the showstopper. Sautéed with plenty of garlic, a little fresh red chili and then deglazed with vinegar, the Magic Kitchen manages to pull all the inherent sweetness from the depths of the cabbage without losing the savory character of the dish.
A year ago I hadn't even heard of Shaanxi cooking. Now I'm trying to convince myself I need a picture eating some biang biang noodles for my Facebook profile. I do, don't I? Right?