Serious Eats

The Nasty Bits: Spicy and Tingly Lamb's Face Salad from Xian Famous Foods

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Xian Famous Foods in New York City specializes in, as its name might suggest, the famous foods of Xian in Northern China. The restaurant is known for its great noodles, buns, and meat. Most of all, its sauce—the spicy, oily, tongue-numbing, chock-full-of-cumin sauce, of which some iteration coats most everything the restaurant makes.

These noodles. And these noodles. And this "spicy and tingly lamb's face salad."

You are eating a whole lamb's head, but this salad disguises it nicely. Not that everyone would need a disguise, but probably not everyone looks at a lamb's head and thinks of all its disparate parts and delicious glory: the cheeks, the tongue, that slip of especially tender meat behind the eye balls, the eyeballs, and every gelatinous bit in between.

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Probably, most people just look at a lamb's head and think, wow, that sure is a head. Once, I brought two heads over to the house of the two friends (married, both vegetarians, wonderful, first-rate people) and they let me roast the heads in their oven. When they were done roasting, I just set them on platters and served it forth, thinking that they were going to be a big hit.

Well, practically no one at the party, not even the meat-eaters, touched the heads. At first I thought the problem might be with presentation, so I rearranged the heads so that they weren't just standing on the plate, and I carved the succulent cheek meat, deboning what I could. I "artfully" arranged plates and forks around the heads. Still, no takers.

I think I ended up eating most of the cheek meat myself, and took the heads back home with me that evening for leftovers. But it was just such a let-down, because I had meant for everyone to share in the joy of a lamb's head.

Anyway, if I had to do it all over again, I would, first of all......not bring them to a households of vegetarians. And instead of roasting them whole, I would braise, debone, and dress the meat in the way that XianFamous Foods does.

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Ah, the sauce. The famous sauce of Xian Famous Foods. It contains, though in amounts that I can only hope to approximate, never replicate: cumin, star anise, cinnamon, roasted chili oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, probably sugar. Maybe, a little spoonful of tahini, for a certain roasted depth of flavor.

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You dress the meat in this sauce, along with your choice of vegetal matter. Xian FF uses parboiled bean sprouts, raw cucumber, and celery. It's a good combination, the juicy crunch of the vegetables acting as a foil for all the rich slices of tongue, cheek, and whatever else you choose to take from the head and put into the salad. (I would also not say no to thinly sliced radish, raw snap peas, so forth - whatever is seasonal and crispy and good.)

If I had my druthers, I'd keep a bottle of this in my fridge at all times to douse it on most things, not just lamb's heads. Noodles, rice, vegetables, other meats, you know, everything. It's just such a good sauce.

Some advice: Try not to eat the sauce every day, as I have been doing for the past two weeks. You don't think you'll get sick of it, but you'll hit a limit, sooner or later.

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Also, it can get a little messy, peeling all the lamb-y bits off the skull to put into the salad bowl. (An errant eyeball here, a lopped-off tongue there. The detached lower jaw, resplendent with teeth.) So I would not do the deed in front of the your squeamish friends and loved ones, as by the end it can look pretty serial-killer-like in the kitchen.

About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.

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