Although he mainly worked corporate jobs throughout college, Jason Wang has returned to his successful family business, Xi’an Famous Foods, in recent years. With new energy, he has plans to continue to expand the family business while working as the chain’s manager in charge of quality control.
Wang recently took a trip back to China to explore his family’s roots and sample delicacies in Beijing, Shanghai, and (of course) Xi’an. We caught up with him to learn how this trip influenced his vision for the popular restaurant chain.
The Daily Meal: Tell us about your trip…
Jason Wang: It was awesome. I hadn’t been back in a while. The main reason Xi’an Famous Foods got started was because we missed the food so much, we missed our hometown so much. So this was sort of a homecoming for me, like going back there, going back to the root of things.
TDM: Which place's food is the best? Xi’an, Beijing, or Shanghai?
JW: Obviously Xi’an’s food is the best, because it’s the most interesting. I don’t think it’s just me saying this, I think if you ask anyone where the most interesting food is, the first thing you cross off the list is Beijing food. Beijing is not known for their food, to be honest. It’s the place you go to eat everything because it’s the capital and everything is there, but they don’t have a local identity. Shanghai has its own cuisine but it’s not considered a major cuisine.
TDM: Any other region come close?
JW: For me, taste wise, I’ll stick with the northwest region. You’ve got the pulled noodles in Lanzhou, you’ve got the knife-cut noodles in Shanxi; those are flavors that I would say are closer to Xi’an’s foods.
TDM: How has it changed since the last time you were back?
JW: It’s definitely changed, but it’s kept its identity, in food especially. China’s becoming more focused on cuisine, so everyone’s really proud of the stuff from their town. It’s sort of a new culture, the popularity of food and food journalism.
Maybe 20 years ago, everyone was just selling their stuff out of their own kitchen, really casual stuff. Now everything is so competitive and a lot of things are marketed. I don’t know if that’s a good way to describe it. It’s a parallel of what’s happening in Flushing, [Queens]. I was chatting with an old lady who was selling rice cakes over there. She was like, what are you filming us for? I said, we’re from the U.S. and this is for our friends on the Internet, just to show them our food in Xi’an. And she goes, here’s my card, you can find me online, I’m on this website, and it sort of shows how popular food has become all over the world. It’s not a bad thing, but I do miss the whole feel of homemade food. It’s still there, it still tastes great, but you have to weed out the ones that are too commercial.
TDM: What do you wish you could bring back?
JW: It’s inspiring over there to taste things you can’t bring back. There are certain peppers that exist in Xi’an that are not available here, and certain vinegars that are not available here. There are these persimmon cakes that I’ve been hounding my dad about, saying, let’s please research these, let’s spend some time and figure out how to make them. These persimmon cakes are made with a particular type of persimmon that only grows in that region. It has this texture that makes it easy to mix with flour, and it’s stuffed with a sugary sesame paste filling. It’s basically like a bun that’s orange colored, and they take it and fry it in oil, and it makes it crispy on the surface, but [inside] it’s soft, like a mochi type of texture, and it’s served hot. And you know, the filling is quite sugary, so it turns syrupy and crunchy, and it’s just so good.
TDM: You can’t recreate it here?
JW: There’s no way to make it here because we don’t have that type of persimmon. It’s not even something that can be found in all parts of China, it’s particular to Xi’an. That’s something I wish I could bring here; maybe we can find alternatives but I don’t think it would be the same.
TDM: What do Chinese restaurants in America do better than those in China?
JW: We focus on the food more. It’s hard to believe, it’s sort of counterintuitive, but I think in China it’s becoming more service-oriented. That’s not to say there’s no good food over there, but a lot of places just have nice waitstaff, nice VIP rooms, a nice venue. You have fancy plating and design, gaudy in some places in my opinion, and the food’s like, all right. So I like it here, everything is still down to earth. Chinese cuisine isn’t considered fancy, you know? So it’s more focused on the food. Not to say there’s none of that in China, but I just feel like people value things differently. I prefer the more down to earth culture over here.
TDM: So you tend to gravitate toward street food?
JW: Yes, I do prefer that straight-up.
TDM: Right, so how do you not get sick from street food?
JW: I guess I was just lucky. Maybe some of the bacteria I have in my stomach was still there, been chilling for the last decade or so. But I feel like the sanitary standards have been improving in China. I didn’t have any bad experiences.
TDM: Any tips on getting only the good stuff on the streets?
JW: If it looks like they’re doing good business, if there’s a long line, I can trust it. Don’t eat something that doesn’t look fresh. It’s the same idea here. How do you know if a restaurant is good? If there’s a crowd. When there’s a crowd they sell stuff out. [If] they sell stuff out, they’re going to get fresh stuff in. I guess that’s one way to protect yourself. You’re not going to be able check everything for bacteria. If you ever take food safety [courses, you learn] it’s not only about how clean the place is, it’s mostly about how the food is stored. If food is left outside for too long, then, you know, it’s no good. But if the food’s turning in the sense that it’s selling, then there’s no time for it to get you sick.
TDM: Who would be your ideal travel companion?
JW: There’s no better person that comes to mind than Anthony Bourdain, of course. It’s an obvious choice. He’s well-travelled, he knows his food, and [I admire] his philosophy of eating at different places, of going to places and treating it all with respect, treating every cuisine with respect. He’s mentioned that before he goes to every establishment he treats it like it’s his grandmother cooking something for him. If you’re going to your grandma’s place you’re not going to be rude, you’re going to be nice. And even if you find the food a little bit bizarre, you’re going to be nice about it and you’re going to be respectful. I think going around with him with that attitude, it’ll make the experience more well-rounded.