How Xi’an Famous Foods Became So Famous

After winning over New York City with hand-pulled noodles and delicate dumplings, David Shi and Jason Wang are tackling delivery.

8 min read

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Xi’an Famous Foods has never compromised. It’s never altered its flavors for American palates. It’s never lowered the quality of its ingredients despite the rapid expansion of its business. And it’s never offered its famous hand-pulled biang-biang noodles for delivery, because the company didn’t feel confident that the fragile, fresh-made noodles could retain their quality during travel — until now. Thanks to a new partnership with DoorDash, Xi’an Famous Foods has finally figured out how to optimize even their most temperamental dishes for delivery, without sacrificing texture or flavor. It’s a whole new era for New York City’s favorite noodles.

When he first arrived in New York City from Xi’an, China, in the late 1990s, David Shi spent his days washing dishes for minimum wage at a series of Chinese buffets. After work he’d head straight home to the kitchen to cook dinner for his family, meals redolent of the flavors he’d left behind in Xi’an: cumin and garlic, black rice vinegar and toasted chiles. 


These were the flavors Jason Wang — Shi’s son, who was eight years old when the family emigrated to the States — grew up with. Even as Wang became fluent in the language and culture of America, attending college, studying business, and working his way toward a steady corporate job, his father’s dedication to the big, bold tastes of Xi’an helped him maintain a strong connection to his homeland. 

As Wang moved through high school and entered his college years, he watched Shi labor and save until he could afford to open his own bubble tea shop; watched his hand-pulled noodles outsell the bubble tea and gain a cult following; watched the business grow into a stall called Xi’an Famous Foods at Flushing’s famous Golden Mall, a bastion for small immigrant-owned businesses and the customers for whom these dishes felt like home. 

“It was really exciting to come back during winter break and see my dad cooking in his shop because it was food we didn't get to eat that often,” Wang recalls. “These noodles take two days to make, so it's not something you just whip up at home casually.” 

He decided to get involved. Initially, it was just during school vacations and between corporate internships. He translated the menu to English (names like “cold skin noodles” and “spicy and tingly beef” were the most verbatim phrases he could come up with) and built the restaurant a website. The more he helped, the more excited he became about the possibilities of his father’s business — and the less he wanted to pursue the corporate career he’d always planned.

Then Anthony Bourdain showed up. It was 2007 and “No Reservations” was one of the most popular shows on television. Bourdain took one bite of Xi’an’s spicy cumin lamb burger and declared, “This place is unbelievable.” 

The crowds followed, and suddenly Xi’an Famous Foods had achieved the kind of mainstream popularity previously reserved for only the most Americanized versions of Chinese cuisine. 


Convinced he’d found his new path, Wang quit the corporate world for good in 2009 to work at Xi’an full time. He’d started out at the bottom, taking out the trash and slowly working his way up to cashier, line cook, and finally, manager. “It took two years of 13-hour work days until my dad decided I was finally ready,” he says. But once he was (today he’s the CEO), the pair hit the ground running. They opened locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. They established a central kitchen in 2011, then a bigger and better one in 2016; here, they could take some of the burden off the smaller shops by handling bulk prep work like batching stews, doughs, and sauces (all the noodles are pulled to order in-store). 

Despite the rapid expansion, Shi and Wang continued to run all aspects of the business together, without any outside investors. “I think the key is that we never think of ourselves as successful,” says Wang. “We never get complacent. We always think, what can we do better? How do we adapt and reinvent while also maintaining the quality of dishes people love?”

By 2020, Xi’an Famous Foods had a whopping 14 locations dotted around the city.  When the pandemic hit, switching to a takeout-only model kept the business afloat for the most part. But when the Xi’an team experimented with delivery, they weren’t satisfied with the results.


“We couldn’t figure out how to optimize the noodles for delivery,” Wang says. “Because they’re so fresh, they’re more fragile than other noodles, so when we tried packing them separately from the soup or the sauce, they’d become this big blob that you couldn’t even pick apart. And since it was the pandemic, we didn’t have the staff or the bandwidth for experimentation. We didn’t want to send out a product we weren’t happy with, so we left the noodles off the delivery menu entirely. People didn’t like that.”

Since then, Xi’an Famous Foods has fully bounced back. Its newest location, in Manhattan’s Union Square, will open this month, and three more are slated to follow. The father-son team is now also eyeing their first expansion out of New York. “Miami is very high on the list,” says Wang. Boston and Philly are also under consideration.

But perhaps the most exciting new development? Thanks to months of experimentation, the Xi’an Famous Foods team has finally figured out how to optimize their beloved hand-pulled noodles for delivery. The process begins by tossing the freshly pulled noodles in sesame oil right after they’re cooked. “Like olive oil does for pasta, it prevents the noodles from sticking together,” Wang explains. Then, all components of each dish are carefully packed into separate containers: the noodles, the soup (if you ordered soup noodles), the proteins, and the sauces. Xi’an’s famous dumplings are similarly separated — dumplings topped with chili seeds, cilantro, and sesame seeds in one container, soup in the other.


This is where DoorDash comes in. Xi’an considers DoorDash its sole partner in a business sense, and has collaborated painstakingly with the platform to ensure a very tight delivery window. Wang believes that the noodles, even when tossed in oil and packed separately, begin to degrade after about 20 or 30 minutes, so DoorDash has established delivery radiuses and strict timing standards to ensure the dishes reach customers within that window. 

“We still don’t have any outside investors, but if someone asked me who our partner was, I’d say DoorDash,” says Wang. “The soul is there, the spirit is there. With them, I finally feel confident enough to send our noodles out the door, knowing they’ll still be delicious when they get to yours.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Quitoriano