Photos: Brandon McGhee
Xibei You Mian Cun has gone from regional obscurity to mall staple, and may be headed for IPO next. It's a feel-good business story, with noodles. But for dinner? We go back.
Seven years ago, when I first wrote
about Xibei Oat Noodle Village
, it was an obscure purveyor of northwestern Chinese cuisine with a unique, delicious gimmick: oat noodles. Since then, its Shanghai presence alone has ballooned to nearly 75 branches in malls everywhere. It seems someone with an MBA was involved.
I visited last week to see what the corporate overlords have done. Would their oat noodles remain? What about the pickles? Is the camel hump still available? Important questions.
The first thing that strikes one is the distinctly corporate sheen. The brand is now a ®. The tagline has been “optimized”. To wit:
"I Heart 莜" → "I Heart Yóu
means oat). Isn’t that whimsically punstastic?
The space itself has been corporatized as well. Once a labyrinth of private rooms, it is now a fully open floor plan with an open kitchen, a bold statement of transparency in this age of food scandals. TV’s play a looping Parallax View brainwash montage of logos, Mongolian horsemen, steppe vistas, and dew-dappled ingredients hurtling through the air in slow motion.
But you can’t eat that stuff. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t eat here anymore. The once-completist menu of 130 items has been more than halved, shrunk down to fit on a
laminated pamphlet that folds up like an accordion.
They've eighty-sixed many of the more exotic items on the old menu. The 300rmb+ camel hump is gone. The homemade tofu. Gone. The pickles — excellent spicy cucumbers — gone as well.
What was arguably Xibei's signature dish, the steamed oat rolls, remains, albeit in an altered form. They make them by hand rather than extruding them from a machine, which is good. But they've replaced the sides of hearty mutton and beef soup with a topping that resembles chunky garden style spaghetti sauce, which is not so good.
You'll still find the restaurant's namesake grain in plenty of other items, from dumpling skins to steamed buns. One of its tastier uses here is in mian yu yu
. These are short, hand-rolled noodles that taper at either end. In a bowl of soup, they resemble a school of small feeder fish, hence the name. You can get them in a "sour" tomato-based soup that could just as easily be served alongside a grilled cheese sandwich. It's pretty good. A lamb soup option is available, too.
There are also other regional favorites like niurou tang paomo
. Translated here as "Pita Bread Soaked in Beef Soup", this dish is how they make use of a dense bing in Shaanxi Province. Chunks of the steamed bread the size of oyster crackers are thrown into a rich, soothing beef broth to swell up into tender, chewy goodness.
Other dishes on the menu seem to go so far west as to end up somewhere in Europe. If you were blindfolded, you could easily mistake a plate of Xibei's pork bones stewed with pickled cabbage for a plate of sauerkraut with ham hocks.
And then there are primal presentations of meat on the bone, like slow-roasted lamb legs that are so tender, they're like pot roast on a stick.
When you look at the menu in the context of all the other changes Xibei has undergone, it all starts making sense. There is the obvious move to cut down on inventory and wastage. After all, how often do you think they were selling that camel hump anyway? More importantly, nearly everything they now serve has one thing in common: It can be prepared in advance. All that the kitchen staff has to do during service is keep the food warm, plate it, garnish it, and send it on its way.
Healthy margins aside, one could draw a few other conclusions about what Xibei's endgame is here. This is the kind of meticulous groundwork that a company lays when it's seeking buyers, investors, or an IPO. There is already a slow but steady trickle of Chinese restaurant brands that have done exactly this. Hot pot giants Little Sheep and Hai Di Lao come to mind. One was acquired by Yum! Brands
. The other became a publicly traded company this September
. Both have been opening international branches, too.
There are some who might carp that this marks a negative trend in dining. Sure, as diners, we should be rightfully concerned when the menu is written by a bunch of corner-office suits rather than chefs. And yes, a restaurant will inevitably lose some of its charm when it's as ubiquitous as a shopping mall. But there is nothing wrong with a little efficiency and consistency from time to time. I've been to several branches in Shanghai in the past few years, and, so far, Xibei delivers on both counts. Would I bring out-of-town guests here like I used to? Probably not. Would I pop in for a convenient dinner after stocking up on socks at Uniqlo? Certainly.