First Taste

First Taste: New Western Chinese in the East Valley Is ... Okay

A fleet of dishes from Xi'an Fusin Cafe in Mesa.
A fleet of dishes from Xi'an Fusin Cafe in Mesa. Chris Malloy
Last week, I rolled up to Xi’an Fusing Cafe in Mesa all hyped to eat strap-wide noodles. These noodles, biang biang — named for the onomatopoetic sound they give when plied and slapped against a work surface when shaped by hand — are a hallmark of Shaanxi cuisine. Xi’an is the capital city of Shaanxi, a province in western China. Though I couldn’t find an online menu, the eatery directly name-checked Xi’an, and this seemed to promise noodles as chewy and glutinous and long as measuring tape.

My party of four got seated. The course revealed an unsurprising surprise: a hodgepodge, one of heavily Sichuan dishes.

“Is your restaurant Shaanxi?” I asked later, over the phone.

“Kind of,” a manager replied, and said nothing further.

click to enlarge Maybe just keep walking. - CHRIS MALLOY
Maybe just keep walking.
Chris Malloy
All right, my group agreed at the table, upon noting the cross-regional hopscotching. An intense dose of western Chinese would have been great, sure. To dive into the flavors of the part of the world where the Silk Road once began, where spices like cumin and religions like Islam made beachheads in China, would have, of course, made for a great meal. But that wasn’t to be. And there was another restaurant down the street for that, so we adjusted. Hopes morphed. Expectations down-shifted. We placed our collective order.

That order consisted of Xi’an-style beef stew, pork skins, soup dumplings, soy-marinated eggs, mapo tofu, braised pork belly, cumin lamb with “fresh noodles,” and a Taiwanese braised beef stew that my Taiwanese-American friend ordered because his grandmother had cooked the dish, passing the recipe to his dad. I also got mung bean iced tea, as Xi’an Fusing doesn’t serve booze.

The chef-owner of Xi’an Fusing, Michael Leung, once owned Gourmet House of Hong Kong (closed in 2017). He is the owner of Asian Cafe Express, across Mesa’s Dobson Road from Xi’an Fusing, the former eatery leaning more into the gastronomy of Hong Kong.

Xi’an Fusing is in Mekong Plaza, where the best approach is to stack your meal with a grocery run at Mekong Supermarket, or a red bean bun from AA Ozzy Bakery.

First, the soy-and-not-tea-marinated egg came. The yolk was cooked to a hard yellow, not green-ringed but close. The soy brought a nice, minimally acrid flavor that allowed some of the soy bean’s nuances to shine, almost seeming to suggest spices like turmeric. If the egg were cooked two or three minutes less, it would have been great.

Soon, a barrage of other plates assailed our plain table, which looked out from the L-shaped restaurant — its intermingling white-and-yellow lights and office-like grid ceiling, with swaths of wallpaper the color and mood of Grey Poupon — to the plaza’s parking lot. Game time.

click to enlarge Steamed soup dumplings - CHRIS MALLOY
Steamed soup dumplings
Chris Malloy
Unhappily, Mapo tofu was defanged of its usual scintillating tingle. The Xi’an-style beef stew featured a dainty, sweet broth without much dimension, the surface sailed by roundish cuts of beef coiled with fat. Ramen-style noodles weren’t anything of special note. Soup dumplings were similar. Rather than coming on lettuce or in a steam-pluming bamboo basket, they came in tiny uncovered tins — one per dumpling. The dumplings almost felt glued to the metal. Once you punctured the skin and the soup gushed, you had to repeatedly scrape the bottom of the dumpling to slide it free into your mouth.

One of my friends thought the dumplings had been microwaved. I would have agreed, but I don’t think you can nuke that kind of metal.

The two main noodle dishes were a step or two better. The “fresh noodles” studded with cumin-scented lamb, a common Shaanxi union, turned out not to be handmade. Bankrupt of their usual heat, strewn with scallion, the noodles weren’t thin and wide, but yellow, tubular, and kinky, saturated with a blunt oiliness. Great light-night food, perhaps.

click to enlarge Noodles from Xi'an Fusing Cafe - CHRIS MALLOY
Noodles from Xi'an Fusing Cafe
Chris Malloy
Last of the noodle dishes, the Taiwanese braised beef soup had a warming flavor of garlic and star anise, one shaped by little else. The broth was still decent. The beef was soft. My friend politely said that it was average at best, that he preferred his grandmother’s.

Notably, none of the five noodle options at Xi’an Fusing resembles Xi’an’s famous chewy, lush, endless lengths of flour and water.

The night’s winner, other than a cleanly vegetal mung bean iced tea, was a starter of pork skin. Petals of pallid skin filled the saucer like a soup, the skin with a visual texture like beeswax. Those fatty curls dripped sauce, mellow and balanced with faint garlic and five spice. Of those we tried, this was Xi’an Fusing Cafe’s best dish.

This was also our last bite of pork. And though promised, the belly never came.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy