“Just be careful with the sauce,” my XiangZi server cautioned me, as he delivered to my corner table a big bowl of hot noodles, a medium sized bowl of something thick, dark, and shiny, and five little bowls of trimmings. The sauce – thick and nubbly, and quite strikingly black – “can be a bit too much if you’re not used to it.” And I guess I looked like I wasn’t used to it.
He was right: I’m not. At least not that first visit to the then month-old XiangZi on Meadowlands Dr. at Fisher, a black and red and handsome enough space, newly opened in the restaurant space where the Latin Bistro used to be. (And prior to that, the sandwich/deli shop Di Rienzo).
But I returned for more, and now I know the ropes a bit. And I now add every bit of the sauce to the hand pulled noodles, relishing the salty, garlicky, umami punch it delivers.
These are the famous Chinese Zhajiangmian or ‘fried sauce noodles.’ Fried pork – small cubes of the belly – mixed with two fermented bean pastes. One, I believe, a yellow soybean, and the other a sweet hoisin sauce. Add black vinegar and chile oil if you wish – both are on the table – and customize the noodles with the crunchy raw condiments — julienned cucumber and radish, cilantro, chopped scallion, steamed soybean, minced garlic. The result is a chunky, slightly sweet, very pungent and salty treat.
XiangZi – which means alleyway, I’m told – serves the comfort food of Beijing. Handpulled noodle dishes, millet porridge, soups, dumplings, baozi (steamed buns), and fried buns. The kitchen, where a trio of women make the dumplings, is on display behind glass. At a second visit, I sat at the kitchen bar, watching the kneading, rolling, weighing, filling, pleating, and steaming of the baozi. It’s a good show and a great education.
At this point I’ve tried most of the Tianjin steamed buns – including the ‘three flavour’, which features pork, green onion, cabbage, and shrimp – and a few of the pan fried stuffed buns. They are all delicious, the dough lightly sweet and delicate, the fillings tasty, well seasoned, and moistened with the steaming juices.
My sense is that the team at XiangZi is still working on the menu: at each visit, new dishes were added, others removed. Some just as far as the white board. And these ‘appetizers’ or ‘specials’ are written in Chinese only. Ask if you need translation! And certainly best to come here with a few friends and share – dumplings come as a basket of eight – and you’ll want to try them all.