Think of the typical Chinese restaurant menu and a few regional cuisines immediately come to mind. Foremost is usually Cantonese food, reflecting the culinary traditions of Hong Kong and southern China with an emphasis on seafood and light sauces of garlic and ginger. Most restaurants will also have some Szechuan dishes characterized by tingly spice, and it’s not uncommon to find representation of Hunan and Mandarin (Beijing) styles. That variety only scratches the surface of China’s diverse foodways, and there are many regions left to explore.
One of those regions is Shaanxi, a province that appears almost at the center of China’s vast territory on a map but is considered northwestern China relative to that country’s most densely inhabited areas. In the Mesa Asian District, a restaurant named Shaanxi provides an overview of the region’s approach to food with a few favorites from other parts of China included on the vast menu. The restaurant is located on the northeast corner of Dobson and Main in the Tricity Pavilions shopping center, just a block or two west of the Sycamore/Main light rail station.
Bike racks are found in front of the Safeway supermarket that anchors the plaza, which is seeing its tenants become increasingly oriented towards a clientele of east Asian ancestry. Shaanxi is a considerable upgrade in terms of space and decor from the owners’ previous restaurant, which had the generic name of “House of Egg Roll.” This newer “house” features dark wood furniture imported from China and bold, colorful murals on the wall. At the entrance, customers are greeted by two terracotta warriors, reminiscent of Shaanxi’s ancient city of Xi’an.
The restaurant by day might at first glance seem like any other Chinese restaurant in America. Customers, most of them not of Chinese ancestry, order capable renditions of classics like chicken chow mein or pepper shrimp, often preceded by appetizers like vegetable spring rolls. At night, however, the menu is the same, but the clientele changes to reflect the Chinese diaspora, and less familiar Shaanxi-style food is seen at nearly every table. On weekends, a musician playing a traditional Chinese harp provides live music to enhance the atmosphere.
While it’s perfectly possible to order (and enjoy) orange chicken, fried rice, or egg drop soup here, such an approach would ignore the restaurant’s distinctive strengths. The food of northern China tends to replace rice with wheat as a staple grain. Potatoes are another starch making a frequent appearance here. There’s less emphasis on seafood dishes, and lamb is abundant. The sum of these influences is hearty food with a flavor profile not seen in many American Chinese restaurants and worth exploring at one of the few local outposts of this style of cooking.
If there’s one signature dish that defines Shaanxi, it’s the biang biang noodles, which are made on site. These have been compared to a belt in terms of their dimensions. About the length of a human arm, it often takes only three of these to fill a bowl, and learning how to manipulate them with chopsticks is itself an adventure. If ordered just as biang biang noodles, they’ll come topped with some braised pork, cubed potatoes, and stalks of bok choy seasoned with broth. The noodles can also be ordered “oil seared” and topped with different vegetables and meats.
Another approach to hand-made starch is found in the Mount Qi noodles, a larger bowl of thinner wheat noodles served in a spicy, sour soup with chives, potatoes, and a little bit of pork. While the noodles seem to go on forever, both literally and figuratively, there are other rewards to be found among the dry pot dishes in which food is served with ample spice but less moisture. This approach yields results that seem halfway between stir-fried and roasted, and is used with ingredients like cauliflower paired with plenty of thinly sliced pork belly and jalapeños.
Meat present in some of the dishes here goes unannounced in the English translation of the menu, so it’s best to ask the staff for clarification if needed. For those who crave less emphasis on meat, the tofu dishes at Shaanxi are a viable alternative. The mapo tofu forgoes the pork seen in some versions of the dish, and the soft tofu with Shaanxi sauce is deceptively simple in appearance. At first, it appears little more than a block of bean curd with a puddle of sauce on top, but those contrasting mild and spicy flavors marry well as the two are blended together.
Simple vegetable dishes like the hand-rolled cabbage are equally effective. Two themes not to be ignored here are lamb and cumin, often served in tandem. Widespread use of these two ingredients is another factor distinguishing the food of Shaanxi from other regional cuisine in China. Lamb meat can be found on the menu in noodle soups or thinly sliced and assertively seasoned with sliced dried chilies, fresh green chilies, bell peppers, copious onions, and a strong presence of cumin. The result seems almost like a northern Chinese version of pastrami.
The one dessert listed on the menu, fried glutinous rice balls with sesame, has not been available when requested, but there is one item from the appetizer section, of all places, that can replace it. The golden bread, served in six bite-size pieces. has a texture similar to beignets and a condensed milk sauce for dipping. Shaanxi offers beer and wine in addition to tea and soft drinks. Shaanxi is a long way from Shanghai or Hong Kong, and its food has its own character, making Shaanxi Garden a vital contributor to the diversity of the Mesa Asian District.
67 N. Dobson Rd #109, Mesa AZ 85201