Article By Stephen Robinson
Many years ago, when I first went to the famous Muslim Street, I was told to try one of the specialties of the street, the 腊牛肉夹馍, or beef roujiamo. It was… disappointing. Having already tried many pork roujiamo before that time, this one was bone dry through and through. The meat was dry. The bread was dry. It was not a pleasant experience. Needless to say, it was many years before I would try another one.
One day, when I was walking down a side street around lunch time looking for some food, I spotted one of my favorite local dishes, 肉丸胡辣汤, a hearty stew composed of carrot, cabbage, potato, and tiny meatballs that you can find in some Hui restaurants. Some people are put off by the texture of this dish (it is a little gooey), but I absolutely love it. A bit of chili and Sichuan Peppercorn oil and you are set. I absolutely needed to stop and have some. As I waited in line (always a good sign) I heard the same thing over and over being repeated to the cashier. 两个夹馍， 四个夹馍， 夹馍，夹馍，夹馍！ Absolutely everyone was ordering the roujiamo. Despite my previous experience with a beef roujiamo, I knew that I had to try one.
As I stood in line once again, I got to watch them at work making the jiamo. First thing that you notice going into this place is that there is always somebody making the 饼, or flatbread that is one part of the two ingredient sandwich. (It’s a sandwich. Don’t argue). Because they are constant seller (another good sign), you are pretty much guaranteed that you are going to get a fresh one, which is just about the best thing that you can eat. These are soft and tender, with just the right amount of chew. You can also get these separate for putting into your 胡辣汤, which they also go really well with.
After the fresh bread is brought over, the 夹馍 assembly person will haul out a massive chuck of 腊牛肉, or specially stewed beef that is slow braised in liquid until it is fall-apart tender. The beef is then diced, chopped, and shredded, all while ladles of the braising liquid is poured over the top, resulting in a mixture that is anything but dry.
After retrieving my 胡辣汤 and elbowing my way into a seat, I took my first bite and I was hooked. The soft, warm bread and the juices from the meat blended perfectly together. The flavor was distinct and rich, much deeper than any of the pork roujiamou that I had previously tried. It was perfect.
I would come to find out later that one of the secret ingredients to authentic 腊牛肉 is the 红曲米 or red yeast rice that lets the beef retain a red color, even after being fully cooked. Done right, it imparts a full and deep savory flavor that reminds me distinctly of corned beef, which is basically what 腊牛肉 is. Served hot on a warm piece of flat bread, has become one of my favorite dishes in all of China.
Over the years I’ve been back to this shop many times and have recommended it to many friends, who have equally become hooked on the excellent quality of the food. I know that I’ve gone on about the roujiamo, but the other offerings at the shop are also good. The 肉丸胡辣汤 is excellent, and in the summers they offer 麻酱凉皮 (sesame seed paste liangpi).
Besides the aforementioned signs, there are a few other indications that this is a good shop. For one, as a Hui restaurant, the place is strictly Halal, meaning no pork or alcohol is allowed in the restaurant. The food moves very quickly and everything is refilled constantly, making everything fresh. Additionally, the restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch, which is key for a restaurant that serves 胡辣汤, but also is a sign that they are focused more on quality than simply trying to make more money. And it shows. There are several 李老四腊牛肉夹馍 restaurants throughout the city, but like many traditionally run restaurants, the quality varies from place to place. The one located on Jiandong Road 建东街 is the best that I’ve tried.
If you are in the area and you want to try the best 腊牛肉夹馍 in Xi’an or enjoy a warm bowl of 肉丸胡辣汤, then head to the shop near the corner of JianDong Road 建东街 and Taiyi Road 太乙路 and give it a try. You will not be disappointed.
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