Where: Shaanxi-Style Restaurant, 943-945 Whitehorse Road Box Hill
What: Northwestern regional Chinese food at its best, and the discovery site of my new favourite burger — rou jia mo
Who: Ox Tongue Soul Sister and Proud Perthian
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
The family-run Shaanxi-Style Restaurant makes no bones about what it specialises in – Shaanxi cuisine. What is Shaanxi cuisine, you ask? You may be more familiar with Xi’an food, which is what Shaanxi food is known as — there’s the famed New York City institution Xi’an Famous Foods and closer to home, there’s EJ Fine Foods (formerly Xi’an Famous) on Russell Street in the city. But if you’re willing to travel to Box Hill (assuming you don’t already live in the eastern suburbs), you’ll be rewarded with the no-frills yet perennially crowded Shaanxi-Style Restaurant. I’m obsessed with the manifold regional Chinese cuisines, so bear with me as I briefly dive into the various characteristics of Shaanxi cuisine.
Shaanxi is a landlocked region in the northwestern corner of China, and carbs are the name of the game here – specifically noodles. Like the northeastern Dongbei cuisine that my favourite Footscray institution Dumplings & More specialises in, Shaanxi is influenced by inner Mongolia and Sichuan, and both cuisines lean on wheat rather than rice, which explains the many variations of noodles, dumplings and flatbreads in both regions. Interestingly, the Shaanxi province was the first province in China to be introduced to Islam, so much of its food is halal. Lamb is big in Shaanxi, as is the interplay between salt, vinegar, spice and sourness.
Shaanxi-Style Restaurant also reminded me of Dumplings & More because many of the same dishes featured in both menus — lamb skewers, cumin noodles, cucumber salad, pork dumplings. But you’ll also discover highly distinct regional specialties on one menu that can’t be found on the other, underlining the diversity of the erroneous catchall term of ‘Chinese cuisine’ – rou jia mo (Shaanxi-style sandwiches) and paomo (crumbled bread soaked in mutton stew) are highlighted on Shaanxi-Style Restaurant’s menu, while on Dumplings & More’s menu, you’ll find far more potato (owing to Dongbei’s cold temperatures and a historically poorer population, which have helped influence its people’s liberal use of pickling, potatoes, and hearty carbs) and sweet and sour pork, said to be originally from Dongbei.
But back to Shaanxi-Style Restaurant! Ox Tongue Soul Sister was scoping out the eastern suburbs for a restaurant that specialises in regional Chinese cuisine when she chanced upon Shaanxi-Style Restaurant — and I’m so glad she did because it was easily one of the best meals I had in 2020.
Never ones to under-cater for ourselves, Ox Tongue Soul Sister, Proud Perthian and I ordered the dao xiao Shaanxi biang noodles ($12.90), cumin fried noodles ($12.90), cumin beef Shaanxi-style sandwich ($6.00), fried chive dumplings ($2.60 each), lamb skewers ($2.50 each) and cucumber salad (couldn’t find the price for this). Predictably, this ended up being too much so Ox Tongue Soul Sister bundled home our barely touched cumin fried noodles.
The dao xiao Shaanxi biang noodles were a highlight. If you can’t decide which noodles to get, these are your best bet because you get one huge bowl with four different types of toppings. Dao xiao mian translates to ‘knife sliced noodles’, and they’re prepared by holding a large block of dough in one hand, a speciality square-bladed sharp knife in the other, and shaving thin tendrils of noodles directly into a large pot of boiling water. Shaanxi-Style Restaurant’s handmade noodles were delightfully slippery and springy, and the four noodle toppings were: an oily yet fresh combination of garlic, dry chilli and spring onion; the aromatic, Chinese household staple of tomato and egg gravy; an umami and salty ground pork and soybean paste; and a tomato-based pork and vegetable stir-fry with carrots, celery, smoked tofu and potatoes, which reminded me of an eight-treasures stir-fry.
The interplay between these four contrasting flavour profiles was exquisite and I was hard-pressed between crowning the ground pork and soy bean paste or the tomato-based pork and vegetable stir-fry as my favourite topping. The umami levels in these two were through the roof, which made the other two plainer toppings the perfect complement. Don’t be stressed if the toppings intermingle with one another; they taste even better when mixed.
Another highlight were the cumin lamb skewers. Like Dumplings & More’s, they were a superb mix of spicy, fatty and smoky.
We weren’t sure how big the Shaanxi-style sandwiches would be, but upon tasting the small corner I’d ripped off, I wished I’d ordered one for myself. The thin strips of beef speckled with cumin and sliced green chilli sandwiched by crisp flatbread may be a new contender for my favourite burger (Shaanxi-style sandwiches, or rou jia mo, are often called the Chinese equivalent of the Western hamburger). Be sure to order the cumin beef one, instead of the plain beef one, as the cumin adds a much-needed depth.
The chive dumplings were oily crescents of pan-fried goodness — I especially enjoyed the combination of pork-flecked glass noodles with bits of egg within, but wished it had a more proportionate filling-to-dough ratio.
The cucumber salad was a refreshing palate cleanser between the different bursts of flavour, and much appreciated. It had much more heat than I’m accustomed to in a cucumber salad, and I enjoyed that.
Which left our sad bowl of cumin noodles, which none of us had the stomach space to ingest. I sampled a mouthful of oil-slicked noodles and it was tasty, though very similar in flavour profile to the cumin and green chilli beef filling of the Shaanxi-style sandwich we had.
There was no way I could’ve ingested the amount of wheat, chilli and oil that I did in this dinner and escaped without bloats, so three bloats felt like a fitting, yet highly worthy, denouement to dinner. I trundled home exceedingly satisfied, and intent on visiting Shaanxi-Style Restaurant again in the near future.
Shaanxi-Style Restaurant is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 9.30pm.