In 2008, chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited Xi’an (pronounced “shee-yahn”) Famous Foods in a Flushing, Queens food court. The Chinese restaurant appeared on Bourdain’s show “No Reservation” and received rave reviews for its lamb burgers and hand-pulled noodles. From there, the basement noodle kitchen skyrocketed to fame and quickly established shops in Manhattan.
The 34th Street location is the tenth for Xi’an Famous Foods, having opened mid-January of 2015. When I stopped in one afternoon to meet the Xi’an office manager, Clare Xu, the line to order was wrapped around the storefront. Clare explained that this was usually the case. Despite the fact that the Midtown restaurant is the largest, with two levels of seating, all the corporate offices in the neighborhood provide a steady stream of clientele, both native Chinese and Westerners alike. With their workflow down to a science, Xi’an Famous Foods remains quick and efficient without compromising taste.
Just returning from a trip home to China, Clare advocated for the authenticity of Xi’an Famous Foods’s flavors. David Shi injected the family-run restaurant with recipes packed with bold, fragrant spices, reflecting cuisine from the Xi’an region of China. Clare explained how technically the seasonings used in the dishes – for example, the fiery cumin and chilies - are not native to China, but rather were introduced to the country centuries ago via the Silk Road, on which Xi’an was the point of embarkation.
To prevent Xi’an Famous’s exotic appearance from scaring away peoples of other cultures, Jason Wang, present day CEO, son of the founder, and head of restaurant operations, left his corporate business career to help boost his father’s chain by bringing a youthful vision to the table. Keeping the atmosphere casual by playing hip-hop music throughout the small shops, displaying modern minimalist décor, and implementing a no-wait staff policy, Jason transformed Xi’an Famous Foods into a warm, relaxed, and accessible eatery for a diversity of patrons.
The restaurant certainly showcased the uniqueness of Manhattan’s population, as people of all backgrounds sat together to enjoy their zesty lunches. N1, the spicy cumin lamb noodles in chili oil sauce, was a definite top seller, while B2, the spicy cumin lamb burger on house-made toasted bread, was another popular menu item. According to Clare, these days restaurant founder David Shi mainly oversees the Greenpoint factory where dough for the noodles is mixed and the meats are prepared. That way, he can ensure that all ingredients will create the best product when cooked and served on location.
Clare detailed how Xi’an Famous Foods looks to share their Chinese culture beyond the dining room through music. For instance, they teamed up with a few other Chinese restaurants in the city for a concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where a number of big-name international musicians performed to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. Food is a great place to begin in increasing one’s understanding of another culture, and in that way, Xi’an is acquainting thousands of visitors with China each year.
(To appreciate the food of the Xi’an region while avoiding the queue, check Xi’an Famous Foods’s “real-time store traffic meter” online before visiting the shops.)
The blending of Cuban and Chinese culture at Calle Dao is evident from the moment one steps into the restaurant in which Cuban cigar boxes and fresco walls neighbor Chinese vases and figurines. When we stopped by, we had the chance to sit down to chat with owner Marco Britti, who is also responsible for the innovative interior decoration. He told us that the décor is meant to “transport you back to Havana. ” With meticulous attention to each detail including a gate patterned exactly like a traditional style of door in Havana, and intricately distressed wooden chairs, the space is remarkably cohesive. Marco’s own life has been somewhat of a fusion as well. Originally from Naples, Italy, he moved to New York in 1996. He told us, “as an immigrant I left Italy to go to New York. So I know what it is like to leave everything behind, try something out and make a business out of it. ” While pursuing a music career – Marco plays the drums – he also worked part time in restaurants. In 1999 he took a trip to Cuba, and ended up living in the Chinatown of Havana for nine months. While there, he learned about the wave of Cuban-Chinese restaurants and was struck by the Chinese influence on the cooking culture. Upon returning to New York, he found that there had not been much development of Cuban-Chinese fusion in the city, which furthered his interest in the restaurant industry. He went on to open his first restaurant, Cubana Café, and later Favela Cubana, both of which presented dishes from different cultures side-by-side. The complete fusion was only realized when he went on to open Calle Dão in the late summer of 2014, partnering with executive chef Humberto Guallpa. Marco said that his situation now is not something he would have ever predicted, and remarks that “it’s interesting to see how you can cross paths in life like that. All of a sudden you are doing something else. ”
Former bankers, husband and wife team Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang, certainly have found a successful niche on 37th Street. If we had not already read that the interior of Cafe China was decorated to resemble Shanghai during the 1930s, we might have guessed that we were having lunch in a 1950s American diner replete with red vinyl chairs and a vintage mint colored mini fridge next to the bar. Once we sat down at our table, however, and had an opportunity to further explore the restaurant, the classy 1930s Shanghai elements became clear. There is a beautiful chandelier twinkling in the back room, blue velvet covering the quaint booths on one side of the restaurant, and Chinese characters decorating some of the prints that hang on the walls. Once past the intriguing decor, we began to concentrate on the menu. The Sideways team ordered some of our favorite staples including wonton soup, vegetable pot stickers, cold sesame noodles and pork dumplings - all perfectly prepared. But it was the Ma Po Tofu dish that stole the show. Having recently learned of this delectable dish, I was eager to try it, and what better place than at a Michelin star restaurant. I was promised it would not be made too spicy for me. It certainly had a kick, but I was able to appreciate the various flavors of the dish and loved it.
Originally known as the Manhattan Opera House, 311 West has had an interesting history. Oscar Hammerstein built the theater in 1906, but after a few short years, the Metropolitan Opera House came to him requesting that he not compete with them, and made him an offer that he could not refuse. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hammerstein sold the building to the Shubert brothers where they continued to feature a variety of shows and concerts. In 1922, it was sold again, and this time a Grand Ballroom was added. Unbeknownst to the builders, they had created an outstanding acoustic setup where musicians from Harry Belafonte to the Grateful Dead have performed and recorded. Over the past twenty plus years, construction has been on-going as more multimedia studios have been added and a refurbishing done to the Hammerstein Ballroom to accommodate large private events.
With construction starting in 1958 and finishing ten years later, Saint Vartan Cathedral represents the first Armenian Apostolic cathedral built in North America. Named after a saint who was martyred a millennium and a half ago defending Armenian Christianity, Saint Vartan Cathedral had a memorable beginning. During its construction and immediately following its completion, the building was visited by the highest authority within the Church, His Holiness Vasken I, marking the first such visit by a Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in the United States. For a people so persecuted throughout history, and especially by the recent Armenian genocide, the building and consecration of this holy house was a monumental event in the community. His Holiness Vasken I, looking out at an assembled audience soon after Saint Vartan's completion, spoke of "an admirable picture of spiritual grace - a rare moment of spiritual bliss - to which we are all witnesses. " But far from being a relic, the church continues to thrive with the energy of the community it houses. I encourage any visitors to the church to walk through the intricately decorated doors and take some time to absorb the sheer size and depth of the church. Narrow strips of stained glass depicting biblical scenes and significant events in the history of the Armenian Church rise up to the impressive dome, which depicts Christian symbols in paint and stained glass, such as a human eye within a triangle (representing the omniscient Triune God), the wooden ship (representing the Church), and the white dove (representing the Holy Spirit). Closer to the altar, the “Head of Christ” is chiseled on a slate of stone in high relief. Silver and gold crosses decorate the distinctly Armenian altar. On the sides of the altar are paintings of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob, the two men credited with inventing the Armenian Alphabet, and a painting that seeks to honor the victims of the dreadful Armenian genocide.