Jason Wang has big plans for his family business, Xi’an Famous Foods. In fact, what began as a basement food stall in Flushing, Queens has quickly become a city-wide chain and now he’s determined to make expand across the country. The 23-year-old business school graduate is the brains behind this unique, Chinese food empire, specializing in home-style dishes from the city of Xi’an. Thanks to Wang, there are now four outposts to get their famous, cumin-rich lamb dishes and hand-pulled noodles. There’s even a Brooklyn wholesale market in the works, where restaurants will be able to purchase frozen versions of their signature dishes.
“I think Xi’an Famous Foods is making a difference in the world of Chinese cuisine,” Wang says. “When I joined my father right out of college, I did not see it as what it was a basement stall in Flushing. Instead, I saw multiple stores with people of all backgrounds enjoying the food.” But don’t expect Wang to sacrifice the integrity of his family’s recipes to cater to the masses. No chance. He asserts, “Sometimes the customer is not always right. Even if people are shoving money in my face to get their dishes customized, I will refuse to do so.”
Did your parents cook you Xi’an’s recipes, like the lamb burger, lamb salad and hand-pulled noodles, when you were growing up?
My father was much too busy to make me those things when I was growing up. I craved this stuff for years, and I was pretty happy when he first made some Liang Pi Coldskin Noodles not too long before Xi’an Famous Foods was founded.
Have you been back to Xi’an recently for research purposes?
No, not recently. It seems like something always comes up and I never have time to go. And it’s impossible to go these days with the stores keeping me busy. But the thing is, while our food is Xi’an food, it’s more about the secret sauces and spices we make from family recipes. I think if an experienced chef goes to Xi’an to do his research in order to bring dishes to the U.S., he still will have a difficult time making them taste good without complex recipes, which we have. Nonetheless, I do wish to visit!
How is food from that city different from the Chinese cuisines that most New Yorkers are familiar with, such as Sichuan and Cantonese?
Xi’an food is not considered a formal cuisine like the other two. Xi’an dishes are casual and home-style, as opposed to foods that may be served in a fancier setting. There’s nothing fancy about our food! You can find most of our dishes served on the streets! And Cantonese food tends to be much milder, with a focus on seafood. Sichuan food is usually much spicier and tongue-tingling than our food. But you may notice that we have spicy and tongue tingling items, as they are influences from Sichuan cuisine due to the proximity of Sichuan with Shaanxi Xi’an’s province.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I have a lot of favorites. Seriously, I eat something different everyday.
Some 23-year-olds want to get as far away from the family business as possible, but you chose to run your father’s business and to expand it. How did you become so passionate about Xi’an?
I am passionate about things that make a difference. I think Xi’an Famous Foods is making a difference in the world of Chinese cuisine. When I joined my father right after college and a stint in the corporate world, I did not see it as what it was a basement stall in Flushing. Instead, I saw multiple stores in the city and beyond, with people of all backgrounds enjoying the foods and learning that Chinese cuisine is not just about sweet and sour stuff.
What did you learn in business school that has helped you running a restaurant? Or have you had to learn a lot on the job?
Business school prepares one’s mind to be ready to think. Being on the job is when all of the learning is done and the business school-trained mind is put to use.
In addition to controlling the big picture operation, you also work in the restaurant, serving and cooking on a daily basis. So what’s a typical workday like for you?
I work in a store everyday for 12 hours. These couple of weeks have been especially busy. But once I am off, I get to my desk and work on some administrative things. And any time left before my eyes close on me, I plan out to-do’s for big picture things. It’s a pretty hectic lifestyle. I pretty much have no life at the moment.
How do you divide your time between the different Xi’an locations?
I am mostly in Manhattan stores, such as the East Village or the new Bayard Chinatown locations. I do drop by all of the stores randomly to check up on things whenever I have time.
Tell us about your plans for the Xi’an commissary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and your initiative to sell products wholesale.
It’s a work in progress. We have a lot of hurdles to get over before we get to wholesale! Right now we are working to get a centralized kitchen up and running.
How do you ensure that Xi’an stays as “authentic” as possible, even as it becomes a mini-chain?
I believe customers are not always right. It’s not because I’m just a jerk, but because I have limits on what I am willing to change on a dish. To keep the dishes authentic, sometimes it’s just best to keep it the way it’s supposed to be made. For example, if you don’t want your Hot Oil Seared Noodles spicy, I’ll tell you to order something else because that dish is all about the spiciness. In the end, if the dishes taste good to me, I will sell them. If people are shoving money in my face to get their dishes customized, I will refuse to do so.
What’s your favorite and least favorite part about working in the restaurant?
My favorite part is seeing cleanly licked plates. My least favorite part is having to deal with our out of control meal-time rushes (which occur everyday without fail). Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the business we are getting, but it’s just frustrating sometimes to feel helpless when there’s little I can do to speed it up even though I’m going as fast as I can.
How do your parents feel about all the attention Xi’an is getting?
My father is very hyped about all of the attention Xi’an is getting. I think he’s very satisfied with our progress!
Where do you see yourself and Xi’an in 10 years?
I see myself traveling all over the US (maybe the world) and doing store visits.