In Natick, northern Chinese flavors translate deliciously – The Boston Globe

You have to admire the pluck of Xi’an native Kang Li. After graduating from Northeastern University with a degree in computer science last winter, Li decided to divert from a career path in coding to become a first-time restaurateur.

In May, after more than a year of planning, Li opened Shaanxi Gourmet in Natick, named for his home province in northern China. Terra cotta warrior statues flank the entrance of the 70-seat eatery, situated between a rug store and a Papa Gino’s, on an unremarkable stretch of Route 9.

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The website says Shaanxi Gourmet is a chain, but Li says he is sole owner of the Natick restaurant and there isn’t more than one location. (His business is separate from a restaurant in Rosemead, Calif., that bears the same name.) Menu descriptions like “pita bread” and “sauerkraut” mystify anyone who doesn’t read Chinese.

But good flavor is not lost in translation. Head chef Yonghong “Jack” Qian, who cooked in New York and at a five-star restaurant in western Shaanxi Province, makes well-crafted dishes that are hard to find at most other Chinese restaurants. The regional fare here emphasizes wheat — noodles, dumplings, and flatbread — so don’t go looking for fried rice.

A Chinese burger ($4.50) is a sandwich, as the name implies, but shredded pork stands in for a patty. Rounds of bread are more dense than a traditional bun, but do a good job capturing the juices of the mildly seasoned meat.

A Chinese burger.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe.

A Chinese burger.

“Cold-skin noodle” ($4.50) has nothing to do with the skin of anything. The name of the appetizer-size dish derives from a Chinese word for something silky-smooth and slightly translucent, apt descriptors for the snowy white noodles, served cool, with julienned cucumber and chile pepper oil. Pork dumplings ($8.95 for 20 pieces) sport chewy, substantial wrappers, filled with gingery ground meat that spurts broth. Ask for a spoon to capture any splatter.

Owner Kang Li (left) and chef Yonghong “Jack” Qian.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Owner Kang Li (left) and chef Yonghong “Jack” Qian.

The Xi’an style of fresh pasta is a delicious dish of the chewy, hand-pulled noodles ($7.50) doused liberally with brick-red chile oil, topped with steamed baby bok choy. Flag down a server and ask for help cutting the skein that is coiled in the bowl (you really need a pair of scissors).

The bread in “pita bread soaked in lamb soup” ($11.50) is flat like the Middle Eastern staple, but baked without any leavening. It’s cubed and tossed into hearty mutton broth with slices of the meat. Ladle out servings for tablemates as soon as this dish arrives. The bits of bread absorb liquid like sponges.

A dish of sliced pig’s ear in chile sauce ($9.95) offers zippy heat and crunchy cartilaginous satisfaction. Also good is a platter of handmade noodles with soy bean paste ($8.25), delicate ribbons sauced with an ingredient akin to miso, along with finely ground pork.

Not every dish succeeds. A sweet tomato sauce resembling ketchup overwhelms breaded eggplant “boxes,” slices of the nightshade fruit stuffed with meat ($10.95). Fish with Chinese sauerkraut ($15.95), a brothy stew full of salted, pickled greens and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, would be delicious if the tilapia were not overcooked.

Servers are frantic and abrupt when the restaurant is busy and hover uncomfortably when it’s slow. Pack some patience. The kitchen is figuring out how to keep up with demand, and it frequently runs out of popular dishes.

On a Friday night, patrons mill around a hostess-less waiting area. Neighbors from nearby Wellesley spot one another and wave hello across the din. One mom says this is the second time she and her family have visited the eatery in as many weeks.

This spot has what it takes to draw crowds. When the rough edges are smoothed out, the restaurant should enjoy a long and successful run.

Spicy hand-pulled noodles.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Spicy hand-pulled noodles.


259 Worcester St., Route 9, Natick, 508-653-8000, All credit cards accepted except Amex.

Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers, noodles, soups

$4.50-$11.95. Meat and seafood $9.95-$19.95

(most dishes under $18).

Hours Sun-Tue and Thu-Sat 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Wednesday.

What to order “Cold-skin” noodles, spicy hand-pulled noodles, pork dumplings, Chinese flatbread in lamb soup.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at [email protected]