I walked into the Mr. Bing pop-up shop in the old Bowery Station to find owner Brian Goldberg in his orange and brown uniform, taking a much-needed breather from the afternoon rush. He’d just been inundated by customers and was now down to his last portion of duck. “I’m kind of new to this whole New York thing,” he said with a smile.
Goldberg actually traces his origins to New York, but he’s been out of the scene for a while. Ever since college he’s had an affinity for China and spent the last 14 years living in Asia. Now his passion for flavorful jianbing crepes, a typical street food in Northern China, brings him back to city.
Though Americans (er, New Yorkers) have recently been dazzled by an array of Asian fad phenoms (ramen burger, pork bun, or Korean burrito, anyone?) Northern Chinese cuisine, like the jianbing, is still largely untapped territory. Goldberg has a grand vision to popularize it into household name, like bubble tea or dumplings. “One day when I die I want, hopefully, to have accomplished something like that,” he said. “Like, I brought this food to America, and it became a pretty popular thing.” He already opened up two Mr. Bing shops in Hong Kong and is looking for a long-term space in the city, likely in a food market.
His love for the tasty morsels of egg and chili sauce began early, when he first studied in Beijing.”Every day outside of our dorm room there was this old lady selling jianbing on the back of a bicycle cart,” he recalled. “We just loved it. It was such a passion food for us.” He and his student friends would eat it for breakfast before class, or after a late night clubbing. When he came back to America he started trying to figure out how to make it himself.
But it wasn’t until recently that he learned the optimal recipe, after tasting the wares from upwards of 40 jianbing carts. Once he settled on his favorite one, he paid the “master chef” to teach him her secrets of sauces and seasonings.
Besides finding the right ingredients, preparing the dish also follows a specific process. First Goldberg swirls the crepe batter, made of green mung beans, onto the griddle with a special tool. He cracks and spreads an egg on top and sprinkles it with scallions and sesame seeds. Then it’s time for the big flip. The other side gets the hoisin sauce and chili paste treatment, a dash of cilantro and some crispy wonton bits. Last, Goldberg folds it up like a little pocket and cuts it in half. The result is something like a warm comfort-food wrap, with a zap of spicy chilis and fresh cilantro flavor.
Goldberg also has meat options that combine luxurious peking duck or BBQ pork with these humble “peasant” snacks. (Or if you’re a total pleb, you can just get a Nutella.)
But don’t confuse these crepes with re-imagined knockoffs from France. Goldberg says this particular snack has been made for hundreds of years and there are even many folklore stories behind its origins– none involving Europe. One tale has it that long ago soldiers in Northern China had their woks stolen and couldn’t cook anything– so they just used their flat shields over fire, accidentally inventing an early version of the jianbing. Another story involves a man in jail studying for the government entrance exam in Confucian times. The only thing his wife was allowed to give him was rice paper and ink to practice for the exam– but instead she slipped him flat crepes and sauce under the door.
But no need to peel your first jianbing off the ground. You can watch Goldberg make it fresh on the griddle at the Mr. Bing pop up, before it closes on March 31.
Mr. Bing: Beijing Bites, 10 Kenmare b/t Bowery and Elizabeth. Open until March 31 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.