It probably shouldn't have surprised us, but Andrew Zimmern's invitation to spend an afternoon in foodie heaven directed us to a most unheavenly location — an eerily desolate postindustrial side street just across the river from Manhattan. But as is delightfully typical for his show, Bizarre Foods America, there were hidden wonders to be found. In this case: Xi'An Famous Foods Production Kitchen, nestled behind a blink-and-you'll-miss it storefront. It's spring, and Zimmern is shooting an episode dedicated to the borough of Queens — where two Xi'An restaurants are located — that airs July 22.
We discuss a couple of the most, um, intriguing items on Xi'An's menu — Lamb's Face Salad and Lamb's Head Soup, the latter of which simmers away in a ginormous pot, the clonking of skulls making for an unsettling ambient backdrop. Bizarre enough for you? "Not for them," Zimmern says of Xi'An's tradition-minded clientele. "The meat on the head is the best part, and the bones in the head and all that connective tissue and organ matter make the best stock."
In fact, Zimmern admits, with Bizarre Foods America now in its fourth season, shock value is more of a side dish to meaningful narrative. "[The show] was always about great food because, to the locals, that 'bizarre' food was great," he says, surveying the nondescript warehouse facades that surround Xi'An. "But if there's been one change over the years, [it's that] we've gotten more focused on the story behind the food." For this episode, that would be the mini empire David Shi and Jason Wang, Xi'An's father-and-son proprietors, have created in New York City. "David comes [to America] and opens up a little stall — literally no seats, just a place where people can stop by and buy noodles," Zimmern explains. "Then it becomes a little place with three seats. And then it's two places, three places, four places, a commissary and a new restaurant called Biang!"
Some other tales told this week include the backstories of Rokhat Kosher Bakery in Rego Park; the Forest Hills Bukharan restaurant L'Amour; nouveau American dinette M. Wells, housed inside MoMA PS1 in Long Island City; and Astoria's Muncan Food Corp.
Though he has done only "three or four" shows in Gotham, Zimmern maintains it still reigns supreme as a culinary destination. "I've been to all of them," he says. "And people can say all they want to about San Sebastián or some other precious smaller cities — about all the fine dining in Paris, or that you can't get a bad meal in Rome. And, sure, many of these things are true. However, New York City is still the greatest food city in the world."
The real revelation, he continues, is that he could shoot numerous episodes just about Queens: "Variety of ethnic cuisines, divided by quality, times opportunity to eat it," he says, calculating the borough's excellence. "It's staggering to me the amount of choice and quality... Queens itself is one of the greatest eating cities in the world, and most people have never been there."
It's also not lost on Zimmern that his own story is pretty compelling: Owing to serious drug and alcohol addictions, he once prowled some of these same New York streets as a homeless person, supporting his habits with petty theft before finding recovery in 1992 at the Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota. "I'm one of the luckiest people in the world," he says as he finishes his Longevity Noodles with Soy Sauce Chicken, another Xi'An specialty. "I'm absolutely floored by the library of experiences and comparative-culture studies that I've been able to do, the amount of food I get to see and taste."
Bon appétit...we think!
Bizarre Foods America airs Mondays at 9/8c on Travel Channel.
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