Sichuan food, from south of Xi'an, is spicy and tingly. But the quickest way to describe the food from our region, Xi'an, is spicy and sour. We really like our rice vinegar. Of course, there are other characteristics, like the use of cumin and lamb, and lots of things made out of flour—like noodles, buns, and flatbreads—that are all part of our identity as well. Xi'an's cuisine is really casual, on-the-go food; there's nothing fancy about it. Most of the spice is in our chili oil—it's always made fresh by my father, who holds the secret recipe for it.
The current president of China, Xi Jinping, is from our province. Because of that, people are paying attention to us right now, but of course, Xi'an is the ancient capital of China and the starting point of the Silk Road, so it's always been an important city.
I can't list out all the spices we use, but let's just say some are pretty common, while some don't actually have names—they just have scientific names. Nothing crazy, no opium or anything like that.
My father learned to cook from his father—really homey, local things. He only started cooking commercially when we moved to the US.
For over a decade, when I was going through middle school and high school, he was always away, mostly on the East Coast working and roaming around to different Chinese restaurants. Being on call, being fired. It was really difficult for him and I didn't get to see him very often.
Around the end of the year in 2005, I went to college in St. Louis, Missouri and my father became a franchisee for this local bubble tea chain, but he also wanted to start selling his own food on the side. The food ended up becoming more popular than the bubble tea and he decided to just focus on that.
Xi'an Famous Foods was always my father's idea, but you could say I say I saw that the idea was more than what it was.
In 2009, when I graduated from college, I was working in the corporate world, but I saw the influx of people visiting Xi'an's website, and Chowhound posting a map of the food court we were in. It was around then that Anthony Bourdain visited.
I felt that if I didn't help the business out, it would stay where it was or someone else would step in and capitalize on it instead. So I just drove all the way through the Midwest back here without stopping—literally. I slept in a McDonald's parking lot and someone knocked on the window and was like, "Are you alive?"
I started from the bottom up with cashiering, cooking, and cleaning, and really just trying to understand the business for three years, working 12-hour days and taking just five-minute breaks. I never cooked before working here. I did go to culinary school after starting here just for a little bit—a stint—but I had to drop out because it was way too busy with work here.
Xi'an Famous Foods has 12 locations, and although we are only in New York City right now, we are looking to expand regionally—and maybe internationally as well. I get asked a lot, "What is authenticity? What does it mean to you?" I think everyone has a different take on that, but for us, it's food that is grounded in the roots of Xi'an, but modified with our own family's taste preferences.
Working with my father is always very stressful because he's family. Obviously, he's critical of his son, because that's just how Chinese parents are. We'll fight fiercely for what we think is right for the business. There's no punches held back—we really go at each other.
Things get a little crazy—like he's ignoring me, or we have to talk through an intermediary, or things won't get done. But at the end of the day, we're still going to come together no matter what.
We're never going to part ways—we both know that. We're joined at the hip.
Jason Wang is the CEO and co-owner of Xi'an Famous Foods, a NYC-based restaurant empire that serves up hand-pulled noodles and other specialties from Xi'an in eleven locations throughout the city.
As told to Alex Swerdloff. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.