Can Chinese Go Fast-Casual? Junzi Kitchen Says Yes

August 25, 2017 5:41 pm, Last Updated: September 23, 2017 12:29 pm
By Annie Wu, Epoch Times

Can northern Chinese home-cooking be replicated for a fast-casual concept à la Chipotle? Junzi Kitchen, first established in the shadows of the Yale University campus and now with a location near Columbia University, wants to bring Chinese food to the masses, so that it becomes “part of your lifestyle and not just an occasional experience with minority cuisine,” said co-founder and CEO Yong Zhao.

Zhao and his two business partners grew up in the frigid northern provinces of China. Wheat is the primary crop there, used to make noodles, dumplings, and breads.

He wanted to serve the nostalgic flavors of home, while making it accessible to American eaters. Yong thought a fast-casual concept would be a fitting middle ground between the old-school Chinatown restaurants and the new creative interpretations of Chinese cuisine presented by Chinese-American chefs.

As the vehicles, Zhao chose noodles and “chun bing,” stretchy flatbreads resembling tortillas, to be filled with meat and vegetables—like a burrito. These were familiar enough.

So, though Zhao arrived at Yale to pursue a doctorate in chemistry, he soon found himself experimenting with ways to make chun bing in large quantities. Zhao consulted his mother and aunt for the dough recipe and eventually devised a way to produce the elastic, springy texture of chun bing using a tortilla machine.

For the fixings, the team tested out their family recipes, with chef Lucas Sin at the helm recreating the flavors.

Sin is something of a culinary prodigy, having opened a restaurant concept in his native Hong Kong at 16 years old and, later, pop-ups out of his dorm room while studying at Yale. He’s also worked in kitchens all over the world, including an apprenticeship at the Michelin three-starred Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto, Japan. Yong and Sin met while attending a Yale entrepreneur seminar on food ventures. Sin later traveled to Yong’s hometown in Liaoning Province and worked at local restaurants “to get a sense of the flavors,” Sin said in an email interview.

Clockwise from top L: Pickled cucumbers, chun bing flatbread wrapped around meat and vegetables, chili tofu, and noodles with Junzi's housemade toppings. (Courtesy of Junzi Kitchen)
Clockwise from top L: Pickled cucumbers, chun bing flatbread wrapped around meat and vegetables, chili tofu, and noodles with Junzi’s housemade toppings. (Courtesy of Junzi Kitchen)

Junzi’s Take on Northern Chinese

Junzi’s concept is simple: Take your pick between noodles (wide or thin, $11.48) or bing (white or whole wheat flour, $7.81 for one, $12.81 for two). Then, pile on your choice of protein, vegetables, extra toppings (called “garnish” on the menu), and sauce.  

The flavors will seem familiar to you if you’ve had northern Chinese fare before: gentle heat from chili oil, vegetables pickled or cooked in vinegar, pungent garlic, and thick, salty sauces. But they taste cleaner than what you’d find at a Chinatown spot.

The chef-recommended noodle bowl, Jaja Beef, for example, is a take on “zhajiang mian,” a dish popular in Beijing that features noodles dressed in a sauce made from fermented soybean paste and bits of stir-fried minced meat. Junzi’s version leaves the meat out of the sauce. Instead, there are thin slices of beef shank on top, braised in soy sauce, rice wine, cloves, and star anise for subtle fragrance. The dish doesn’t feel as heavy as the traditional version.

The braised pork is another great choice for the accompanying protein, cooked in anise, black cardamom, and brown sugar, then shredded.

Sin makes all the sauces in-house. There’s “sweet bei,” a take on “tianmian jiang”—a sweet-savory condiment, made by fermenting wheat flour, that is often served with Peking duck. Here, it’s infused with sesame, an addictive garlic chili, and a savory soy that draws inspiration from “huangdou jiang,” another type of fermented soybean paste, with extra umami from shiitake mushrooms and aromatics.

Among the vegetable toppings, which rotate seasonally, the matchstick potatoes are a standout. Yukon Gold potatoes are cut into thin strips, then stir-fried with rice vinegar for zaps of sharpness. Don’t miss out on the potent garlic chives and “chive ash,” either. The former is cooked in a fermented tofu sauce with aged Chinese black vinegar, while the latter are smoky flakes of Chinese chives. Sin gives them incredible flavor by cooking them in oil for hours until they’re almost burnt, then dehydrating them.

In the coming months, Zhao and Sin plan to launch a midnight menu inspired by Chinese street food snacks.

Junzi Kitchen
2896 Broadway (at 113th Street)
Morningside Heights
11 a.m.–10 p.m.