Las Vegas’ so-called Chinatown has long been the town’s most interesting off-Strip dining destination for foodies in the know. In recent years, however, its Chinese offerings have been overshadowed by other Asian restaurants. So I was intrigued when I heard some buzz about Shaanxi Gourmet, a new Chinese place offering a style of cooking fairly new to our valley.
An offshoot of a popular Rosemead, Calif., restaurant of the same name, Shaanxi Gourmet is the first local establishment I know of to feature the cuisine of northern China’s Shaanxi province. Among the noteworthy aspects of its cooking, particularly the dishes offered at Shaanxi Gourmet, is the liberal use of lamb — a meat rarely seen in more familiar styles of Chinese cooking.
That this restaurant landed on the radar of so many local foodies so quickly is impressive. While it’s located in the same Jones Boulevard strip mall as critical darling China Mama and next door to the popular HK Star, Shaanxi Gourmet isn’t listed on the complex’s roadside sign, and the small sign above its door is written only in Chinese. While most of the menu provides English descriptions of the dishes, some pages are entirely in Chinese. Most of the conversations taking place at the tables are also in Chinese. And while the waiter who served me during my two visits spoke some English, communication was definitely difficult. All of this, of course, makes it the kind of hidden gem serious food aficionados live for.
The menu is divided into six categories. Noodles constitute the largest portion, with two dozen choices priced between $3.50 and $20.50. You’ll also find various cold dishes ($4-$5), hot dishes ($7.50-$33), barbecued skewers ($1-$6), dried skewers ($1-$5) and soups ($6.50-$10.50). The house specialty here is lamb, which is offered in numerous forms. You can get it on skewers, in several noodle dishes and soups, in a stir-fry and even in haggis. Speaking of haggis, offal (organ) and other “lesser” meats are also prominent on the menu. They include beef and ox tongue in chili sauce ($5), skewers of pig kidney or chicken gizzards ($5 for five), shredded pig tripe ($5) and pig-skin jelly ($5), just to name a few. But have no fear, there are plenty of approachable pork, chicken and seafood choices.
The first time I visited with my wife. We’d heard the Shaanxi chefs love to use lamb (one of her favorite meats) and cumin (one of her favorite spices), so we immediately sought out an entrée of lamb and cumin stir-fry ($12). For our other large dish, we ordered lamb noodles ($8.50), and on our waiter’s advice we began with an appetizer-sized portion of cold-steamed noodles in sesame sauce.
The first course was wonderful. The noodles, which were of a medium width and thickness, were wonderfully accented by bean sprouts and the mildly spiced sauce. That sauce also provided a nice kick to the small spongy cubes of dried tofu that had been sitting in it long enough to concentrate the flavor.
Our lamb dishes were polar opposites of each other. The wide, thin noodles (so long we were offered a pair of scissors to cut them) were served in a broth of leeks and wood-ear mushrooms that seemed to concentrate the gamey flavor of the large lamb chunks. While it may have been a bit funky for some, I loved it. The stir-fry, however, was so drenched in cumin and other flavors that the greasy sliced meat could have been just about anything. Each was good in its own way, but which you prefer will definitely depend on how much you like lamb, which can be something of an acquired taste.
Intrigued, I returned the next day to sample a few more dishes and was slightly disappointed with each. The lamb served on skewers was once again loaded with cumin. But the real problem was that it was over-cooked and dry. And a stewed pork “burger” ($3.75) consisted of juicy, tasty meat that was overshadowed by a dry bun reminiscent of a thick pita.
I’m sure this restaurant is a godsend for those familiar with Shaanxi cuisine. And while it’s not my favorite style of Chinese cooking, it’s a nice addition to the Chinatown scene.
SHAANXI GOURMET, 3400 S. Jones Blvd., 586-3311. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net.