This Xi’an Impression spin-off brings the spice of life to Aldgate
There’s no doubt that London can be a chaotic, stressful place that can drain not only your bank account, but also your tolerance for the continued existence of other human beings. To focus myopically on all the usual big city problems, though, would be to miss the endless opportunities that the capital offers to those wise enough to see them and seize them. Metropolises are magnets for people from all walks of life, bringing with them their viewpoints, offers of friendship and myriad personal and cultural creations that can enrich your life in ways big and small.
Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles, a starkly-lit place that looks more like a corporate HQ canteen than a restaurant, appears hardly capable of enriching the proprietor’s pension fund never mind your free time. Looks, unsurprisingly, are deceiving. This restaurant serves a selection of Shaanxi dishes from the northwest of China, a rare find in a city – and a nation – where Cantonese and watered-down anglicised derivations are still the norm for Chinese food. All this might seem odd for the Aldgate end of Commercial Road inside what used to be an identikit café, but not when you realise who’s behind it. This oddly and prosaically named restaurant is effectively the second branch of Xi’an Impression which itself sits opposite the Arsenal Emirates stadium of all places.
Biang biang noodles
The biang biang noodles are the eponymous main attraction here and they’re truly beautiful. Thick and wide with roughly hewn edges and a smooth surface, the biang biang noodles were consistently springy then tender across all my visits. The bovine version comes with earthy, tender, sinewy chunks of brisket (or possibly chuck) beef, with quivering connective tissue still attached in some cases. The sauce was only modestly moreish, but that’s a relatively small flaw in the grand scheme of things.
It’s also worth having the biang biang noodles with the lamb, not for the unimpressive meat used but for the sauce it all comes in. Moderately spicy with a garlicky hit and an undercurrent reminiscent of fermented soybeans, this richness more than made up for the wilted lamb.
Somewhat surprisingly for a Shaanxi restaurant, Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles also has a Xinjiang Uyghur dish on the menu – lianpi ‘big plate’ chicken noodles. The repurposed biang biang noodles were just as delightful as ever, this time accompanied by moreishly earthy bits of chicken with the skin and bone still attached. The poultry was scant in number though and the thin sauce, while sour and lightly piquant, just couldn’t compare with the far more sophisticated and awe-inspiring sauce served with the version of lianpi at Walthamstow’s Etles.
Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles could really do with a better menu writer as ‘cold skin noodles’ sound particularly unappetising to the average English speaker. It’s actually one of the best dishes on the menu though, almost outshining the eponymous biang biang noodles themselves. Narrow, but remarkably thick, slickly smooth and milky, the chilled noodles came served in a gently moreish sauce that was also piquant, vinegary and even lightly sweet. The deep, complex flavour of the sauce was remarkably satisfying, while the chilled noodles were especially welcome on a sweltering summer’s day.
Don’t be tempted by the cold skin noodles in sesame sauce. Rather than using the intense moreishness of sesame seed oil to enhance the dish, as I had expected, this version used what appeared to a thin emulsion of sesame, egg yolk and oil. This added a cloying mouthfeel that got in the way of enjoying the still-superlative noodles, but without adding enough in taste to justify its presence. Poor.
Thin jellyfish tentacles were slippery and springy with an odd but nonetheless pleasing mouthfeel that fell somewhere in between fibrous and crisp. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it – especially when doused in the piquant and lightly vinegary sauce.
The selection of starters ideal for long, hot and muggy days continued with the sliced, chilled chicken. The poultry soaked up the tart vinegary sweetness of the house special sauce, which was itself offset by peppery celery and crisp spring onions. Beautifully spot-on.
Curiously, there’s another chicken dish on the menu that uses the same sauce but was far less pleasing overall. The absence of the vegetable garnishes and the hot slices of thinner, less absorbet chicken all served to dampen the qualities of the sauce. The smallest of things can have a big impact.
While soft and crumbly, the preserved egg wasn’t as funky and pungent as I had expected. The earthy funk came instead from a topping of preserved cabbage which was itself neatly complimented by the tart, sweet, vinegary and numbingly piquant sauce. The egg was just the protein backdrop for all this richness.
Wrinkly lobes of supple black fungus came in a sharp, bright and peppy coriander-based sauce, all of which made for a suitably refreshing and tingly starter/side dish.
The ‘pork burger’ came filled with an unctuous and lightly moreish mixture of minced pig and onions, but it was all obscured by the hard, cardboard-like bread which was just as unpleasant as it sounds.
The appeal of the vaguely nose-shaped pork dumplings lay not in the forgettable filling, but in the thick, smooth and lightly doughy mouthfeel of the dumpling skins and sour heat of the sauce.
Sweet potato noodles were chewy and slippery, almost to the point of viscosity. They were far more enjoyable than many other transparent ‘glass noodles’ I’ve tried, especially when taken in the potent soup. Although very oily, it also had a cumulative sourness that eventually turned into a bristling tangy heat that will make every follicle of hair on your body stand on end.
Wontons aren’t hard to find in this town, but they’re rarely as good as the ones available here. Eggy skins filled with juicy pork – that was admittedly more punchy ginger than meaty pig – would only have been half as enjoyable without the cloudy soup. It was brimming with a lip-smacking moreishness courtesy of dried shrimp.
Although the noodle-like strips of tofu skin weren’t as texturally distinctive as their dimpled appearance would suggest, they were still smooth and gently chewy. They were even better when taken with the powerhouse sauce – sour, tart and lightly sweet, it also had a numbing effect almost certainly derived from Sichuanese peppercorn. It was so addictively flavoursome, I slurped up every last drop which only served to set my gums vibrating and my toes curling in pleasure.
The noodle soups here use thin and narrow wheat noodles with a winsome albeit subtle maltiness. They were by no means bad, just comparatively anonymous in light of the headlining biang biang noodles. If you’re looking for a cockle-warming dish, then it’s worth having these malty thin noodles in a lightly hot and sour soup dotted with sinewy, earthy chunks of beef and creamy green leaves.
The same combination of noodles, soup and greens is also available with pig intestines in place of the beef. If you’re as big a fan of offal as I am, then this is a must have. If you’re not, then this is the dish that might finally win you over – the umami funk of the smooth offal pieces was addictive and beguiling. My only complaint was the meagre serving given how cheap offal is.
While the pork belly noodle soup used the same noodles and greens, the soup wasn’t the same lightly sour concoction as before. The cloudy, umami liquid was reminiscent of the broth in a shoyu ramen and enhanced the occasionally bland but generally corpulent slices of tenderised pork belly. This noodle soup was arguably something of a mixed bag – the soup was easily the best of all three that I tried, but the pork belly can’t hope to compete with the beef or the offal for my affections.
Many of the dishes at Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles are some of the most gutturally satisfying I’ve had the pleasure of devouring in this city. At times though, this restaurant feels as if it’s coasting on its rarefied status as one of the few eateries in London serving Shaanxi food. The comically haphazard service was as far removed from the efficient (if brusque) Chinatown standard as it’s possible to get. Finger-drumming 15 minute waits for my order to be taken were bad enough. Getting orders mixed up and then repeatedly bringing the wrong dishes to my table added another layer of patience-sapping time-wasting. All this points to a mixture of amateurish staff and bumpy, untested logistics. There are also one too many calorie-wasting filler dishes on the menu, possibly to please the Uber Eats and Deliveroo crowds.
Even so, Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles is easier to get to than Xi’an Impression, its Holloway Road counterpart, and – even with its flawed service – it’s still preferable to many of London’s other Chinese restaurants Shaanxi or otherwise. Just be prepared to have your patience tested, before your appetite is satiated. Infuriating yet vibrantly, vivaciously delicious. If Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles isn’t a restaurant metaphor for London, then I don’t know what is.
What to order: Biang biang noodles; Cold skin noodles in house special sauce; Won tons; Dumplings; Sweet potato noodles; Tofu skin; Noodle soups with either pork intestine or beef; Black fungus; Shredded chicken in special sauce
What to skip: The Cantonese and anglicised dishes needlessly bulking up the menu; anything with sesame sauce
Name: Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles
Address: 62 Wentworth Street, London E1 7TF
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday 11.30-15.30 and 17.00-22.30. Friday 11.30-15.30 and 17.00-23.00. Saturday noon-23.00. Sunday noon-22.00. Last orders 30 mins before closing.
Reservations? highly recommended for large groups.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £30-35 approx.