This Chinese food chain with a celebrity following that started out in a basement in Queens is a better alternative to Panda Express

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If you're tired of run-of-the-mill Americanized Chinese food, you may be in luck.

New York City-based restaurant chain Xi'an Famous Foods serves authentic, mouthwatering cuisine from the Shaanxi province in northwest China.

From Anthony Bourdain to Bobby Flay, Xi'an has enjoyed a lot of attention since its beginnings as a food stall in the basement of a mall in Queens.

Since 2005, the chain has grown to nine locations throughout NYC, and is proving to be incredibly popular.

Xi'an recently landed on Zagat's first NYC Fast Casual survey list — further proof of the chain's rise to NYC fast-casual stardom.

It may just be popular enough to take on a larger market and bring real Chinese fast-casual to the Panda Express fast-food market.

I visited the 34th Street location, right off 5th Ave — and steps from the Empire State Building.Hollis Johnson

One wall near the register is dedicated to the numerous celebrity foodie visits to Xi'An Famous Foods. The chain has quite an impressive fan base.Hollis Johnson

The menu is simple yet enormous. There's an amazing assortment of meals to choose from for such a no-frills establishment.Hollis Johnson

There's usually quite a line, but the counter service is quick. Despite there being nearly 10 people ahead of me, I was ordering within five minutes.Hollis Johnson

The kitchen is open and bustling — and amazing to watch. You can watch the fresh batches of noodles go from dough to plate in minutes, and all the meat is cooked before your eyes.Hollis Johnson

There's seating crammed anywhere and everywhere in the narrow restaurant, including an upstairs dining space.
Hollis Johnson

The interior is simple: white subway tiles, brick, and zany Keith Haring-esque artwork. The radio plays a lot of hip hop — it's a youthful, informal atmosphere with little pretense.Hollis Johnson

You wait for your food at the end of the kitchen, watching it cook from pan to plate. The wait was a tad long —maybe eight minutes — but to be fair, it was wildly busy at the time.
Hollis Johnson

But at the end of the wait, it's clearly worth it. I ordered the spicy cumin lamb burger, pork "zha jiang" noodles, and "spicy and tingly" beef noodle soup. The smell of my meal alone is intoxicating: a swirling vortex of cumin, soybean sauces, and sharply aromatic spices rise from the steaming dishes.Hollis Johnson

I also grabbed a sour hawberry tea from their drink fridge for $2. It's light and refreshing, and not overly sweet, although there isn't much in terms of sour.Hollis Johnson

I'm excited to dig in after just looking at this rich meal. I try the "spicy and tingly" beef soup first, and I'm blown away. The broth is oily, very heavy on cilantro, and incredibly spicy — the name doesn't lie.Hollis Johnson

And the beef is so incredibly tender, it practically melts in my mouth. I don't know that I've ever experienced such a euphoric soup before this. And for $9, the serving size is well worth it; this alone constitutes a satisfying meal.Hollis Johnson

On to the lamb burger. "Burger" is something of a misnomer — it's really more of a loose lamb sandwich. It's a decent size, especially considering the $4 price, and comes in a sturdy flatbread bun.Hollis Johnson

Let me say this: if you're a big fan of cumin, then look no further than this sandwich. The tender lamb is loaded with cumin seasoning, with onions and scallions adding a perky brightness to taste.Hollis Johnson

Finally, I try the pork zha jiang noodles, a steal at $7.75. Xi'an Famous Foods is famous for its noodles, and takes them pretty seriously — even discouraging takeout orders with noodles, as they won't stay fresh long. This dish is a simple mixture of spicy stir-fried ground pork and a soybean paste sauce on top of thick "biangbiang" noodles.Hollis Johnson

The noodles are broad and thick, with a filling doughy quality to them. They're handmade and ripped in the kitchen. The meat and sauce are deliciously savory, and I detect a very slight hint of sweetness in the rich sauce which plays well with the cool crunch of cucumbers, scallions, celery, and chives.Hollis Johnson

It takes ... a long time to finish. The servings are enormous, and the meals are hardy and filling. And for such low prices, how can one go wrong? Look out, Panda Express: real Chinese food is coming.Hollis Johnson

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