Why You’ll Find London’s Best Biang Biang Noodles Opposite Arsenal Football Club

Why You’ll Find London’s Best Biang Biang Noodles Opposite Arsenal Football Club

X’ian Impression in Highbury, right by the Emirates Stadium, is one of only two restaurants in the capital to specialise in the cuisine of China’s Shaanxi province—including its signature noodle dish.
April 4, 2017, 11:12am

From the outside, to fans pouring out of Arsenal Football Club's stadium in Highbury, North London, there's nothing to suggest that Xi'an Impression is anything other than an ordinary Chinese restaurant.

By "ordinary Chinese restaurant," of course, I mean the kind of place you'd go to after a match for luminous orange pork balls and prawn crackers. The red and black sign over the shop is written in Mandarin and the walls are adorned with posters of Chinese linotypes. The menu contains pictures of each dish so you know what you're ordering.

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So far, so normal.

Xi'an Impression, a Chinese restaurant in Highbury, North London.

But look closer at those pictures and read the names of the dishes, and you probably won't recognise any of it. Xi'an Impression serves Chinese food alright, but not as we know it.

"We get a lot of football fans coming in here," says owner Chao Zhang. "They look at the menu, look up again and ask, 'Is this a Chinese restaurant?' They want chicken chow mein, spring rolls, and prawn crackers, which is what they think is Chinese food. I say, 'Trust me, this is authentic.'"

Xi'an Impression is one of only two restaurants in London focused on the cuisine of China's Shaanxi province, where the Silk Road finishes in the East.

"Most people know it for the Terracotta Army," says Zhang. "Not the food. But it's very popular in China, and it's from my home town. I really wanted to share the food of my home with the world, so I'm starting in London."

With football fans?

"I know I'm being ambitious," he concedes.

Xi'an Impression owner Chao Zhang.

Xi'an Impression opened opposite the Emirates Stadium more by accident than by plan. The place Zhang had hoped for fell through, this space was available, and they were ready to go. So, he went for it.

"There are some people who'll just say no and walk away," he says. But if there's even a glint of curiosity about Xi'an food, Zhang lures them in with gateway dishes like steamed dumplings and potstickers.

"They're easier to accept because they're recognisable. But they're not deep-fried. There's no oil. We use starch to get the potstickers crispy on the top."

Potsticker dumplings.

It's the use of oil that seems to be Zhang's primary objection to what many Brits consider "normal" Chinese food. When I ask him to define Xi'an cuisine, he says: "It's healthy. Definitely." He can't stand prawn crackers because of the oil.

"They're not healthy at all. They're deep-fried, the oil's inside. Lots of that kind of food looks nice but has oil inside where you can't see it."

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By contrast, the dishes Zhang serves are made by hand without preservatives, meaning flavours aren't hidden by a film of grease.

Biang biang noodles with beef.

"I don't know that there's one word to describe Xi'an food, except maybe yummy. It's yummy food. Take biang biang noodles," he says, by way of an example. Biang biang noodles are flat wheat flour noodles about the width of a school ruler, served in chili sauce
with either vegetables or beef.

"Biang biang is sour, spicy, a little umami, a little garlic, soy, ginger … I can't describe the flavour. One is not stronger than the other because we try and balance the flavours, so the ginger, garlic, vinegar, and umami is all balanced. I don't know how to describe it, except to say it's my favourite." The biang biang noodles are one of Xi'an Impression's signatures, and made so long that there are actually only two strands of noodles in a serving. The dish is also a regional favourite in the Shaanxi province. Zhang's mother, like many others, would make the noodles for him as a child.

"She made biang biang noodles, potstickers …" he remembers, "and these: skin-cold noodles."

Don't be put off by the name. "Skin-cold" just means the noodles are served at room temperature. They're made by separating the gluten from the wheat starch in the flour. The starch forms a layer that then gets steamed and sliced into strips like noodles. Next, the gluten that was separated is re-added to the dish, like pieces of tofu, along with shreds of cucumber and a little chili oil. It's a textural delight to eat. Who knew cold noodles could be so good?

Skin-cold noodles with shredded cucumber and chili oil.

Pieces of gluten added to the noodle dish.

The chef at Xi'an Impression makes all the noodles fresh every day by hand.

"We don't use preservatives in our noodles so we make them fresh daily. They're 100-percent wheat flour," explains Zhang. "You know the noodles you buy in the supermarket have a shelf life of a month or sometimes two? That's because they've added preservatives. The long the life, the more preservative you add. So we don't add anything."

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"Everything is hand made," he adds, highlighting another point of difference to your local Cantonese takeaway. "That means it doesn't always look immaculate but the flavours are the best."

And in the two years since Xi'an Impression opened, the proof is in how busy it is. The restaurant shares its strip with a hot dog shop, a sandwich place, and someone selling salt beef. They're all popular, says Zhang, with queues on match days. But on non-match days, Xi'an Impression is just as busy.

The view of the Emirates Stadium from a table window at Xi'an Impression.

"I do my best to persuade people to sit down and try it. One they've done that, they do keep coming back."

Those gateway dishes of potstickers and noodles do the trick for me. I'm hooked.

"It's the food that convinces them, not my talking," says Zhang. "And when they do come back, after awhile, they stop asking for prawn crackers. That makes me happy."