I haven’t seen the World Health Organization numbers, but I’ll hazard a guess that there aren’t all that many people who suffer from Celiac disease in Xi’an, China. And I’m positive that this whole gluten-free-by-choice thing among non-sufferers won’t catch on there. Because based on the addictively flavored, fabulously textured food at Xi’an Sizzling Woks, it just wouldn’t be possible: No one would eat much if they did.
This region’s food, until now more or less underrepresented in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, is hearty fare, the sort of stick-to-the-ribs procession of dishes that tingles the tongue and fills the belly in equal measure. Biang biang noodles, each one as long as the entire track of the former R5 and jauntily ragged along the edges, practically springs back against the molars with the first few chews. Glistening with a deeply savory, unexpectedly refreshing ginger scallion sauce, they are, for $5.95 a bowl, among the great bargains in the neighborhood.
“Special Ma-la hot,” all shimmering red like some sort of liquid ruby, and with chili flakes clinging to the edge of the ceramic vessel, contained an entire universe of treats: Cabbage and broccoli and slippery vermicelli and beef like a shot of umami straight to the heart. And then there’s the glorious liang pi, a heaving helping of chewy noodles, glutenous wheat nubs like some kind of soaked bread, thin-sliced lengths of cucumber, and a sauce as bracingly piquant-spicy as any in the ‘hood. Have a bowl at noon, and don’t even think about dinner till 7 o’clock or so.
It’s all served in a pleasant if basic space (though I love the trompe l’oeuil sky-and-clouds painted onto the ceiling) with service that runs the gamut from helpful to less so. No matter: Xi’an Sizzling Woks is a very welcome addition to Chinatown, and already a crucial part of my regular rotation.
Xi’AN SIZZLING WOKS
902 Arch St. 215.925.1688
Hours: Daily, 11am-10pm.
Dinner with Luke Palladino