Main Street in Flushing, Queens felt like Williamsburg, Brooklyn with 99.9% more Asians and zero recycling bins next to the trash cans. To be honest the entire Flushing area reminded me a lot of Richmond, Vancouver—I’m sure all people from Richmond and the Greater Vancouver City area would feel right at home in Flushing and Williamsburg (and vice versa). While exploring this corner of Queens, my traveling companions and I stopped by Biang!, a sister location to the Xian Famous Foods kiosk. My palate is not equipped to handle the super spicy/oily dishes that composes Northwestern Chinese cuisine, however it seemed too good to pass up an opportunity to visit the hype-beast that is Biang!.
Biang!’s namesake is derived from the Shaanxi Biang Biang Mian (noodles). Because the character for “biang” is so contemporary, it isn’t typically found in modern Kangxi dictionaries—when one member of my party noticed the complex fifty-eight stroke character adorned on the restaurant walls, she asked our server what it meant (having never seen it before). The resulting conversation went something like this:
Friend: *Indicates to giant character on the wall* What does it mean?
Friend: No, not the restaurant title beside it it. What does *that* mean?
Friend: What does that character stand for in English?
Server: Beeeee-ANG! Biang! I said, Biang!
Friend: Oh, that’s how you write it in Chinese … What does Biang, mean?
Server: Biang …
A great laugh amongst our table with our server and a quick Google search revealed that this character really didn’t have a meaning, it is just what some people call the flat, belt like noodles that is sometimes found in certain pockets of Shaanxi. Talk about lost in translation!
To start, we ordered the Spicy Cucumber Salad, Spicy Cumin Chicken Heart Skewer, and Spicy Cumin Chicken Gizzard Skewer. The meal was rounded out by an order of Spicy Cumin Lamb Burgers and Lamb Biang-Biang Noodles. Having tried a small portion of each dish, it was evident that Biang has one flavour profile and it consists of a cumin, onion, long horn pepper, scallion and garlic mixture. Aside from the flavour of the protein that is ordered, the spice mix I described is all that you can taste in every bite (with the exception of the salad).
The Spicy Cucumber Salad is great palate cleanser. Cool, crisp and refreshing, this salad is basically just chilled cucumber pieces tossed with Szechuan pepper/garlic oil and black vinegar (which is just vinegar that has been aged for a malty/smoky flavour). While a slow, burning heat does creep up on you when you’re eating this salad, it is a very manageable level of spice that is both piquant and balances out the sweetness of the cucumbers (not unlike the heavier, Korean-version of cucumber salad which uses gochujang for dressing). The chicken heart and gizzard skewers (three skewers per dish) were tasty bites all dusted in the same chili powder/cumin/salt mix. The hearts were cut up into thin slices, which caused it to loose it’s typically rubbery/chewy texture and take on a wonderful crispiness. As an adventurous eater, I can say objectively that chicken hearts have a mild chicken flavour (dark meat) and do not taste anything like liver (which has an off putting metallic flavour for most people). The Gizzards were crunchy, as expected, but were smaller portioned that I expected (compared to what I’m used to in Calgary and Vancouver). Overall, both skewer dishes had a bold charcoal roasted aroma and I would order them again if given the chance.
The knock out dish of this meal was for sure the lamb burgers (pictured below). The spice on these burgers was intense! I really enjoyed the toasted, crispy bun paired with the tender pieces of lamb within. At first I wasn’t sure if I would like this dish as it reeked of cumin; although the smell of these burgers are a bit much at first, it tastes wonderful.
The lines are long here are Biang! and it’s not any wonder when celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are raving about the food. Despite the high end prices (honestly, you could get pretty much the same items at the New World Mall food court around the corner)– it may just be that the extra dollar or so more that you fork out at Biang! covers the cost of the stylish decor and chill ambiance…and perhaps, also the chance to rub elbows with the ultimate trend setters in the Asian American community? Whatever the case may be, Biang! is a place that I feel extremely comfortable at. These are the flavours and food concepts that I grew up on, and yet the style and (most of) the patrons are people who embody values that I can also identify with. It’s hard to explain, but when I’m in Canada and I’m at Chinese restaurants I can’t help but scoff at the excessive use of tacky gold accents, stereotypical dragon/phoenix motif everything, and dated looking furniture. Biang! and other restaurants like it (BaoHaus also comes to mind) embody the style elements from my generation of North American-born Chinese kids.
I love the use of exposed light bulbs, bare brick walls and satirical panda art. The soundtrack that they use establish ambiance are the sweet jams that can be found on my own iPod playlist. Why wouldn’t I feel comfortable here? I feel that this type of restaurant concept embraces traditional Chinese cuisine– both in the preparation and flavour profiles, but changes up the presentation and style in the most refreshing of ways. I for one am very excited by this type of restaurant and cannot wait for the day a place like this opens in Calgary. I want kids like me, a “CBC” or “Banana” (apparently being born in North American makes you “white-washed”) to see how our heritage dishes can be mashed up with the culture that we know and be turned into something that is all at once familiar, distinct and beautiful.