Biangbiang: authentic Xi'an grub in the heart of Philadelphia's University City

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If you stand at the southwest corner of 40th and Chestnut in Philadelphia, this is what you'll see:

Inside, it looks like this:

(As usual, all photos are embiggenable)

This is probably the most gaily, yet tastefully, painted Chinese restaurant I've ever beheld.  But the decoration is not due to the current owners, who have been at this location for about five years and acquired the premises when it already looked like this.  Somehow, I feel like the decor of West Philly's Xi'an Sizzling Woks (the Chinese name is Xī'ān měishí 西安美食 ["Xi'an fine cuisine"]) echoes Muslim restaurants I've seen in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan), home to Dungans, who actually hail from the Xi'an area a century and more ago (see "Selected readings").

There's also a branch of Xi'an Sizzling Woks in Chinatown at 902 Arch St., but it is smaller and more nondescript than the one in University City that I'm describing in this post, and I get the impression that most of its business is takeout and delivery.

Xi'an ("Western Peace"), the capital of Shaanxi Province, is one of China's great cities.  In terms of medieval and early history, including the prehistoric period, overall it is probably the most important city.  Located at the confluence of the Yellow and Wei rivers, the traditional name of the city was Chang'an 長安 / 长安 (Cháng'ān ["Lasting Peace"]):

The site had been settled since Neolithic times, during which the Yangshao culture was established in Banpo, in the city's suburbs. Furthermore, in the northern vicinity of modern Xi'an, Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty, China's first emperor, held his imperial court, and constructed his massive mausoleum guarded by the Terracotta Army.


It has always been my view that the location of Chang'an / Xi'an made it of extraordinary geostrategic and cultural significance because it lay at the eastern end of the Gansu / Hexi Corridor, thus it was the terminus of the Jade / Silk / Glass / Spice / Fur / etc. Road stretching across the middle of Eurasia, and at the bottom of the Ordos, the omphalos of eastern Central Asia and East Asia, hence the Bronze, Wheat, Horse, and Chariot Road extending across the vast steppe to the north.

A little tutorial on the spelling of Xi'an, Chang'an, and Shaanxi

The apostrophe in Xi'an and Chang'an signals where to separate the syllables.  Without them, the former would be pronounced as a single syllable (Xian [ɕian]) and the latter as "Chan-gan", not "Chang-an").  The double "a" in Shaanxi indicates the third tone in the first syllable, a relic of tonal spelling (Gwoyeu Romatzyh / GR / National Romanization).  This distinguishes it from the neighboring province of Shanxi (Shǎnxī 陕西 vs. Shānxī 山西).

The menu

We've often mentioned "biangbiang" noodles on Language Log (see "Selected readings").  There are many variations for how to write the character for biang.  Suffice it to say that it is one of the most complex Sinographs, with between 42 (simplified) and 70 (traditional) strokes, depending upon how you choose to write it.  If you want to see what it looks like, go here or here.  Although the traditional and simplified forms of the character for biang have been entered in Unicode, few conventional fonts have them.  Hence they are essentially untypable.

Listed under the "Noodle Soups" (tāngmiàn 湯麵) section of the menu, #3 is niú/yángròu huì miàn 牛/羊肉燴麵 ("beef / lamb braised noodles"), but the English is given as "Biang Biang Noodles in Lamb & Beef Soup".  Thus we see that, for lack of a vast enough font, they had to forego that famous Sinograph for biang. The same thing happens for a couple of other entries on the menu, where the full monty Sinograph for biang is missing and replaced by a circumlocution or variant name, e.g., yóupō chěmiàn 油泼扯面 ("oil splashed pulled noodles").  In a sense, this ironically makes the English more accurate than the written Chinese in conveying the quintessence of this inimitable dish.

To tell the truth, I didn't know quite what to expect when the biangbiang noodles were served up to me, so I approached them with a combination of excitement and trepidation.  On the one hand, they looked rather plain, without any touch of panache.  On the other hand, I was astonished by how broad and long the biangbiang noodles were, like a belt, as the Xi'an locals say.  Summoning up the courage to clasp one with my chopsticks, I slurped it up and… and… fell madly in love with it at once.  Slippery and al dente at the same time, the biangbiang noodle slid across my tongue and down my gullet, exuding glutinous glory all the way.

What an evocative flavor!  I was mystified by how such a wide, subtly spiced strip of drawn dough could be so utterly, hauntingly palatable.

Another dish demonstrating the mastery of farinacious culinary skills may be found under "Appetizers" (tóutái 頭臺), #3 is ròu jiā mó (lǔròu / ròu sàozi 肉夾饃(滷肉/肉臊子) ("small bits / pieces / chunks of meat pressed [inside the two halves of a bun]"), the parenthetical part of which they translate accurately as (Choice of Braised Pork or Spicy Minced Pork"), but they also provide the fanciful translation as "Chinese hamburgers".  A restaurant in London calls them "murgers" (see the second item under "Selected readings").

The bread is ineffably delicious — I savored it as though it were manna from heaven.  This "Chinese hamburger" bun is the closest thing I've ever found to the unleavened bread I had as a little boy at the Church of the Brethren (cf. Central Asian Islamic bread described in Paul D. Buell, E. N. Anderson, Montserrat de Pablo Moya, and Moldir Oskenbay, Crossroads of Cuisine:  The Eurasian Heartland, the Silk Roads and Food [Leiden: Brill, 2020]).

Notes by Zihan Guo

The folk mnemonics of the word biang, listed on Wikipedia (Chinese version; also in the English version are very impressive. Both the Chinese and the English versions of the Wikipedia Biangbiang noodles article have animated GIFs showing the stroke order of the traditional character for biáng. The GIF in the English version specifies that it is according to the folk mnemonics, not according to the canonical principles of stroke order

The menu turns out to be very interesting too. They seem to have increased the price of many dishes by $1. On the noodles page, the numbers on the pictures do not match the actual dishes. The third picture is supposed to be biangbiangmian, but its number says 11 not 14. There are actually three dishes labeled biangbiangmian (noodles 3, 7, 14), but it is not self-evident from their Chinese names. Maybe only local Xi'anese would be able to discern them. I wonder how guests with no knowledge of Chinese would think of the dish without the right picture. Maybe the curious name itself is enough for them to venture into. I was also surprised that they simply left liángpí 涼皮 (appetizer 1 & 2), a most classic Xi'an dish, as liang pi, which gives no hint of what it is. I am not sure if its name has become so intelligible, as lo mein (noodles 24), to not merit a translation (that is not difficult either – cold rice noodles). Also, "special" seems to be a panacea for translating exotic culinary terms. The restaurant probably only has Chinese customers anyway.

Despite all the quirks, the layout of the menu seems carefully designed. Appetizers are followed by desserts, which are usually placed at the end. It is also reasonable, since zhǔshí 主食* (noodle soup, noodles, rice) can then be put together on one page. Each part fits neatly and perfectly on two pages. I was reminded of how the waitress served the dessert first without being conscious of the order. Chinese do not seem to have the concept of dessert to clear the table. Those listed as desserts are more like side dishes. In a typical Chinese restaurant in China, you would be served fruits at the end of a meal. Maybe Chinese consume too much carbohydrates to still thirst for sweets.

[*VHM:  "staple, principal / main food"]

I wonder why Xī'ān měishí 西安美食 ("Xi'an fine cuisine") uses the English name Xi'an Sizzling Woks, which brings to mind málà xiāng guō 麻辣香鍋** instead, though "woks" is indeed evocative of traditional Chinese cuisine.

[**VHM:  "peppery and spicy hot pot"]

Bottom line

I want to try everything — all entries look so tempting and mouth-watering.  Can't wait to go back again.

Severely selected readings



Chang'an / Xi'an, plus Ordos and Gansu / Hexi Corridor

Noodles and bread

Pots and woks


  1. AntC said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 4:33 am

    I want to try everything — all entries look so tempting and mouth-watering.

    Yum! yes! Do they deliver — to New Zealand?!

    My experience of cuisine in actual Xi'an (in the 1980's) was dismal: organised tourist plane/coach-tour was the only way to get to the Terracotta Warriors; mass tourism, mass hotels, mass restaurants; same story/same food (pale imitation of Beijing style) all over the country; I tried to escape to a local hawker centre for some sizzle — had a couple of 'minders' all the way round the town. (And this was just before the Tiananmen square 'evenements'.)

  2. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 6:03 am

    In Japan a cup noodle version is available, although I haven't tried it yet.

    See here for an Amazon order page with enlargeable photograph of the cup cover.

  3. Francois Lang said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 6:57 am

    It's been quite a while since I've been in Philadelphia, but I am very fond of the XI'an Famous Foods chainlet in NYC

  4. /df said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 7:11 am

    Aha, I thought: that must be the origin of the name of the dish "Bang-Bang Chicken". But all the Wikipedia are against this: there are no noodles in that dish of sliced chicken, and the notorious character is nowhere to be seen. The commonality that I could observe is onomatopoeic folk etymology, in the one case from the "biáng" made by slapping the noodle dough and in the other from the "bàng" of beating the chicken to tenderise it.

  5. Vampyricon said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 10:47 am

    Well, if I ever end up in Philly, I'll know what to try out!

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 12:28 pm

    I very much suspect that I am the only reader of Language Log who came here expecting to read about a caterpillar rather than food …

  7. Ronan Maye said,

    June 10, 2022 @ 12:53 pm

    I know that corner well because of the subway station; I think that used to be a chicken place? These past years I've noticed that Xi'an food has become more and more popular. The Boston area has a bunch of Xi'an places now and one of the most popular restaurants in Flushing, NY is the Xi'an place that opened up a few years ago.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    @Philip Taylor: When I saw your comment I was at first entirely open to the possibility that "grub" for food was an Americanism that you plausibly would not have been exposed to. Yet wiktionary's example sentence for that sense of "grub" is from an early novel by the extremely British Anthony Burgess – the 1958-published "The Enemy in the Blanket" (set in late-colonial Malaya during the Emergency), viz. "The rice ration's down to nearly damn-all in the kampongs, but we keep finding dumps of grub in the forest."

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    June 11, 2022 @ 9:10 am

    It is not that I was unfamiliar with the word "grub" with the meaning "food", JWB, it was merely the context that threw me. In everyday speech, "lovely grub" is a commonplace idiom, but in a forum as erudite as Language Log, I genuinely interpreted as meaning "the larval form of an insect" and wondered why the adjective "authentic" had been prepended as opposed to (say) "confirmed", "exotic" or "non-native".

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2022 @ 9:45 am

    Tyler Cowen, via Bill Benzon, informs us that biangbiang noddles are available "somewhere in Dublin".

  11. Gene Anderson said,

    June 11, 2022 @ 4:07 pm

    The menu bears a fair resemblance to the "strange and delicious" dishes in the Mongol cookbook Yinshan Zhengyao from the 1330s.

  12. Stephen L said,

    June 12, 2022 @ 3:08 am

    There's an *extremely* popular biangbiang noodle place in Berlin (wen chang – the queue is always ridiculous). I admire their restraint in having the words "biang biang" printed in Latin on their windows but avoiding any scary Chinese characters from their branding.

    Whatever they're doing, it's working for them!

  13. maidhc said,

    June 12, 2022 @ 5:08 am

    The first photo is really good. You should consider submitting it to CRWDP.

    Xi'an food is very popular around here too. A whole lot of restaurants have popped up in the last 5 years or s.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2022 @ 7:36 am


    Can you please do it for us? Do you need any additional information?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2022 @ 7:43 am

    Stephen L

    The color on their door is also reminiscent of the decor at the Sizzling Woks restaurant pictured in this post.

  16. Francis said,

    June 12, 2022 @ 9:34 pm

    Where is the garlic? 糖蒜? 冰峰? 酸梅汤? These questions need to be answered ASAP!!! @VHM please investigate!!!

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