Anyone following food trends in the U.S. lately would notice that ethnic street foods are hot stuff. From Korean tortillas to souvlaki, these neatly wrapped, bold-flavored delights are the rising stars of new fast-casual restaurants. Already a sensation in NYC, perhaps it is not surprising that Beijing Jianbing (Beijing crepe) would make its debut in Ithaca.
Jianbing consists of a crispy-fried wonton sheet and finely chopped ingredients (mushroom, bacon, pickled vegetables, you name it) wrapped in thin egg pancakes. Growing up in a big city like Beijing, I’ve seen school kids, business people and even big executives holding a jianbing wrapped in newspaper as they embark on a morning commute. The food is cheap (usually ￥5, less than $1), ubiquitous and fully customizable.
In Ithaca, you can find jianbing at Beijing Jianbing, a restaurant located at 159 Dryden Road. After entering the restaurant, I went straight to the cashier to make my order. The sit-down area is spacious and clean, with just chairs, tables and a condiment stand. The food is prepared behind a large glass panel, so I could see the cook skillfully spreading the batter in two semicircular sweeps on a large round griddle with a cracked egg on top.
The offerings are simple but thoughtful. You can get jianbing with one of six fillings: vegetables, beef, pork, chicken, roast duck and kimchi. They also do deliveries. The prices range from $6 to $13, not very expensive but certainly more substantial than a snack. I suspected that a crepe was too small for dinner, but besides jianbing as the main dish, they also offer dumplings and buns, salad sides, drinks and ice cream to complement your meal. I ordered chicken and vegetable jianbing for my party of two, and got some complimentary hot tea as we waited.
When my order came out, I was surprised that it came on a paper plate instead of in a food wrap, which would be perfect for grab-and-go. Of course, no one is in a hurry to go anywhere, so I sat down and unbecomingly raised my fork. The crepe is big, though cut in half, and loaded with shredded chicken, lettuce and raw tomatoes. Realizing how foolish it is to ruthlessly pick apart something that’s meant to be enjoyed in layers, I folded the crepe in half and ate it with my hands. The jianbing tastes great: the crisp fritter contrasts well with the crepe, and the savory flavor comes from the thin layer of sweet sauce on the inside of the crepe.
Overall, the jianbing at Beijing Jianbing still feels Americanized, a viable sandwich alternative that suits most palates instead of catering to a particular style. For me personally, the spicy garlic sauce with a strong kick will be sorely missed. Part of me was still a bit disappointed, the jianbing I would truly enjoy would allow for more choices, the number of eggs, a variety of toppings and fillings, sauces and sizes. Of course, jianbing differs by region, but I’m sure a more innovative approach would give more life to this classic food. But, who cares? Jianbing is here for good, and that’s all that matters.