Shaanxi, a province in the Midwest of China, is best known for containing Xi’an and its Terracotta Soldiers, but it will always hold a place in my heart for its Muslim quarter, which has some of the best street food in the world: fresh slabs of bread, lamb skewers galore, and noodles as thick as a Game of Thrones novel, all for pennies. Shaanxi is a land of few vegetables and plenty of meat, and, like most cuisines, its food is a product of its environment. In other words, the Midwest of China has plenty in common with the Midwest of America, and the food isn't much healthier in Xi'an, either. Every Shaanxi dish I’ve eaten has had, in some form, bread, noodles, meat, onions, chili oil, and more bread. The best place in the San Gabriel Valley to find these dishes, Shaanxi Gourmet, even serves a soup that’s filled with both noodles and, you guessed it, bread – sort of like Matzah Ball Soup, except in Shaanxi’s soup the bread is cubed into tiny pieces the width of a penny (and the broth tastes good).
The Midwest comparison is never so obvious as when you order the beef burger, and if you’re coming to Shaanxi Gourmet, you’re probably getting a Chinese burger. The dish is essentially spiced ground meat loaded in a slab of sliced bread and is probably a closer relative to the lesser versions of an Argentinean empanada than an American burger, but the comparison has nonetheless caused the lamb rendition of Shaanxi’s burger to receive plenty of attention in SGV circles. Jim Thurman at L.A. Weekly went so far as to write a column specifically devoted to finding the best in L.A., and, unsurprisingly, Shaanxi Gourmet was the column’s focus. With all that said, much of the acclaim is rooted in the dish's novelty - i.e., the ability to say you've eaten an authentic Chinese hamburger. But while they’re not extraordinary by any means, they’re nice and worth an order.
A better option is going for the Shaanxi style noodles. It’s entirely acceptable to get noodles via the massive Big Plate Chicken dish – a big plate of a chicken with wide noodles thrown in for good measure – but it would be criminal to miss out on the dish simply called “Shaanxi-style noodles,” which is actually a single noodle as long as Kevin Durant’s arm, and the "Shaanxi spicy cold noodle." The latter holds a smooth spicy flavor I remember distinctly from China and haven’t found anywhere else in the SGV, where most cold noodles go heavy on the sesame paste.
Some of the dishes on the menu have hints of Szechuan influence, where spice is a cuisine mainstay. Much of that influence stems from the city of Hanzhong, which is located in the southwest of Shaanxi and borders Szechuan. The twice-cooked pork at Shaanxi Gourmet is relatively similar to its popular Szechuan counterpart, except it had, well, bread – in this case, fried garlic bread. Shaanxi cooks do not hesitate when there is a question of adding bread.
The occupants of the restaurant, by the way, were entirely Chinese, and there were two spacious rooms that were both completely full. I have eaten at plenty of the restaurants in the SGV where everyone else was Chinese, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as out of place -- at least in the sense that if I had no short-term memory and was told we were in China, I would believe it without question. That's not true of most other Chinese spots in the SGV, with the exception of maybe Shen Yang (San Gabriel), and it was only very recently that Shaanxi Gourmet opted to even translate its menu. I have no problems with this, of course, but it’s worth recognizing that Shaanxi Gourmet, as perhaps the most authentic Xi’an restaurant in the SGV, has developed its own niche in the SGV community.
Note: Don’t confuse Shaanxi cuisine with Shanxi cuisine. I’m told they sound different enough in Chinese, but for whatever reason someone decided that the ‘Shaanxi’ and ‘Shanxi’ spelling was the best way to differentiate the two provinces in English. And yes, they border each other. The best place for Shanxi food in L.A. is probably JTYH Restaurant, which is famous for its knife-cut noodles and made it on Jonathan Gold’s 99 list on L.A. Weekly a few years back.
Note 2: If you like Shaanxi food, you’ll probably enjoy Xinjiang cuisine, which also focuses on breads, thick noodles, lamb, and meat pies. Try Omar’s Xinjiang Halal in the SGV.
Shaanxi Gourmet: 8518 Valley Blvd, Ste 102, Rosemead, CA. Dishes $3-10.