Ever Heard of Chinese Sandwiches?
Growing up in urban China, the biggest reason for me to wake up early was the assortment of street food for breakfast. My parents would go out at six in the morning to visit the food carts, before they were sold out. As for me, I must also get out of bed soon after to catch a bite while the food was fresh. I remember having puffed fritters, sticky rice patties with sugar filling, crispy pouches stuffed with whole eggs, funnel shaped scallion pancakes… I know, sounds like a lot of carbs and calories, but it was a necessity. Imagine the forty-minute-per-way cycling commute that was to follow!
Not everything was fried, of course. My favorite street food throughout my childhood was a sandwich from Xi’an. It’s an ancient city in Shaanxi province, and it has been a capitol for as many as thirteen different dynasties. The sandwich consists of just a toasted flatbread filled with braised pork. In Chinese, the sandwich is called roujiamo, or “meat-stuffed bread”. It sounds pretty simple, but the amount of time, effort and attention to details required to make it is nothing but.
Watch, Smell, Drool
Your senses – assuming they are already awake in the early morning – are in for a treat when you approach a roujiamo vending station. The vendor would have a thick cross-section of a tree trunk as cutting board, a basket of freshly baked flat breads, and a small clay pot sitting on a coal fire, bubbling and releasing meaty aroma into the morning air. You make an order and watch him perform the magic show. He opens the clay pot, exposing a simmering dark brown stock with salivating chunks of braised pork jiggling like jello. Then, he scoops up a piece of meat along with some soup, dumps it all on the cutting board which has a concave surface to hold all that delicious au-jus, and starts chopping. The au-jus slowly disappears as the meat is minced, making it even more juicy and flavorful.
Finally, the assembly begins. The cook grabs a bread and slices it open like a pita pouch, and quickly stuffs the minced meat inside. As a final touch, he asks if you want to add cilantro or jalapenos, before wrapping the sandwich in a paper pouch and handing it to you. Of course, you won’t be able to resist the temptation to take a bite, because now you can smell the toasted bread and aromatic meat close-up, soaked up with au-jus, shimmering under the morning sun.
The very first bite will send your taste buds to heaven. The flatbread is only slightly leavened, which gives the outer surface a cracker-like crunch. Before you take note of that, the soft interior of the bread already begin to melt in your mouth, and then puff! goes the piquant, complex savoriness of the pork. There are so many layers of texture within one bite. You have the crunchy bread, tender lean pork, the juices seeping out as you chew, and the occasional pieces of fat satisfying your guilty primordial craves. Before long the sandwich disappears and you are left regretting not ordering two of them, because the line has already grown long.
X (Xi’an) Marks The Spot
After moving out of China, I haven’t had this amazing experience for almost twenty years. I made some attempts at home to recreate this dish, but I was never able to achieve the right texture with the bread. A few days ago, with a strike of luck while map-surfing, I noticed a new Chinese supermarket in Park Pavilion Center (Northwest of Coit-Park intersection in Plano) just opening up, and in the food court there was a tiny restaurant called “Xi’an Yummy Foods”. Not surprisingly, under the bottom left corner of the menu, I found the roujiamo:
Yes! Finally there’s a restaurant in DFW serving my favorite childhood comfort food! I found an opening in my work schedule and drove 30 minutes to visit this new place. I was happy that I did.
- Price Range: $7 – $15 per person
- Parking: On-premises, Free
The Asian supermarket hosting this restaurant, zTao Marketplace, had recently switched to this new name before grand opening. The restaurant was on the far side of the floor near the butcher section. I ordered the “B1 – Stewed Pork Burger” (which is the sandwich I’ve been making a big deal about), and “A2 – Hot & Sour Cold Noodles”.
Mouth-Watering Wheat Starch Noodles
The food promptly arrived while I casually browsed the menus of other restaurants nearby. The “cold noodle” was actually served hot, which made the name of the item a bit misleading. Let me tell you why: the type of noodle, 凉皮 (literally, cold flat noodles), is usually part of a cold salad, so it retained the name even when served hot. In my case, the noodles came with hot beef broth, topped with slices of braised beef shank, fried peanuts (I couldn’t stop fishing for them), blanched bok choy, pickled mustard stalk, and little cubes of steamed wheat gluten.
The noodles were about two inches wide, eighth of an inch thin, semi-transparent and pleasantly chewy. Unlike normal noodles, they were made from wheat starch. Basically, you take a regular flour dough, wash it out in a pot of cold water until all the starch dissolves and only the sticky gluten is left. Let the starch solution set, remove the excess water, and pour it into a large flat pan just to coat the bottom. The starch water along with the wheat gluten are then cooked in a steamer, which turns the starch into a soft and elastic sheet. Cut up the sheet and the gluten, and you have the building blocks for “Cold Sheet-Noodles”, a northwestern Chinese delicacy. They can be tossed with seasoning and sauces and served as a salad, or with hot broth like what I just got, or even stir-fried with meats and vegetables.
The broth was slightly spicy, and the chef certainly wasn’t shy with the vinegar. The Northwestern Chinese people love vinegar. When they eat noodles, the first thing is to pour a few spoons of vinegar in the bowl. The local dark rice vinegar is only mildly sour, but packs a punch with its strong aroma.
The beef shank was properly braised and rested to allow the collagen to set, which helps holding shape during slicing. Nothing was more satisfying than slurping in a chopstick-full of noodle and beef, and letting the blend of spicy, sour, salty, Umami, chewiness and meatiness all work wonders together. Finally, a few fried peanuts finished the bite with an explosion of savory crunchy nuttiness.
And Finally, The Sandwich
Oh, how could I forget about the sandwich! Just by looking at the toasting marks, I could tell it was authentic. It was exactly what the Chinese referred to as “brown rings, tiger stripes, and chrysanthemum center.” This pattern is achieved by rolling out the dough with using a thick, spindle-shaped rolling pin. This type of rolling pin causes the edge of the flattened dough to curl up, which looks like a cup. The dough is lightly toasted on both sides before baked in the oven. Proper execution results in the signature look of multiple brown rings with a small cluster in the center.
The texture of the bread was also spot-on, crunchy outside and soft inside, soaked with au-jus, just like what I remembered from my childhood. The pork was succulent, tender, and properly seasoned. Personally, it would be even better if there were more spices and more chunks of fatty pork, but my wife doesn’t like me eating fat so I’ll leave it as that.
Browsing through the rest of the menu, it seems like I found a gold mine of authentic northwestern Chinese cuisine. The noodles were hand-pulled and cooked to order, served in a variety of styles that all sounded very familiar to me. Overall, I think this restaurant is like an ordinary mom-and-pop shop serving honest and tasty food, trying its best to satisfy the cravings of the locals, except that it’s in DFW which makes it a completely unique, one-of-a-kind place. The only place we have right now to experience the life on the barren rolling hills of northwestern China. I can’t wait to go back again.