When the jianbing food trend hit its Stateside peak a couple of years ago, I figured it would only be a matter of time before we’d be seeing the handheld Chinese crepes on every corner around UC Berkeley.
Cal has long been a sort of epicenter for popular and affordable Asian snacks, and in recent years, several large Asia-based chains have cropped up offering all orders of boba and fruit teas, ramen, pastries, matcha, fried chicken and other eats to the area.
Many, but definitely not all, of their target audience are from Cal’s large Asian international student population who seek their favorite dishes from home in Berkeley. In 2018, the university reported that 61% of its international students were from East Asia and the Pacific, with 37% from China alone (the next largest country of origin, for point of reference, was India, with almost 10%). Given these stats, and the fact that people worldwide have already caught on to the textural and flavor delights of the dish, I’m a little shocked we’re not yet experiencing jianbing overload in Berkeley.
Jianbing is a well-loved and ubiquitous breakfast food in China. Traditionally, these savory, filled crepes are prepared by street food vendors on portable circular grills. A thin layer of wheat and mung-bean flour batter is spread onto the hot surface, then a beaten egg is smothered in, forming another layer, before the pancake is filled with a sheet of deep-fried wonton skin, chopped green onion, cilantro leaves and a slathering of hoisin and chili sauces. Within minutes, the whole shebang is folded into a rectangle, to be enjoyed immediately. The spicy, sweet, salty and savory ingredients create a bold, but harmonious flavor blast, but it’s what happens in your mouth with every bite that completes the jianbing experience. The juxtaposition of the soft crepe and crunchy wonton scratches that inherent itch we have to be delighted and entertained by our food.
So, as soon as I heard about a jianbing pop-up on Southside, I got on my bike and pedaled over to Raretea (last known as Sharetea and before that, TeaOne), the boba shop on Bancroft Way offering a menu from Hu Tong Jian Bing. (Note that there are multiple Raretea locations in Berkeley, but only 2440 Bancroft Way location is hosting Hu Tong Jian Bing.)
I stopped by on Monday just before noon, and although the shop had a constant flow of customers, most were Cal students ordering drinks. I studied the menu that offered five varieties of jianbing — original ($7), chicken curry ($9), beef stew ($10), cumin lamb ($10) and roasted duck ($12) — before settling on two, original and lamb. For $1 extra, you can add another egg to your crepe or zha cai (salty pickled mustard stems).
Although I ordered for dine-in at Raretea, the crepes were cut in half, with each portion placed into its own white paper slot bag. No plates here. The bags would seem to make for easy on-the-go eating, if it weren’t for the fact that the jianbing are extremely hot when fresh off the griddle. Pulling out the steaming crepe was difficult, and it soiled and tore the paper bag as I clumsily removed it. Still, I wanted to take my first bite as soon as possible so the wonton skin would have optimal crunch.
I tried the original first, the traditional Beijing-style jianbing without meat, but filled with egg, green onions, cilantro, hoisin and chili sauce. I could detect a pleasantly eggy aroma as prepared to take a bite. The dough had a soft chew and the wonton skin a nice crunch. Without a meat buffer, the zing from the chili sauce and sweetness of the hoisin were pronounced, but not overpowering.
As I finished the first half, I realized I had ordered too much food — there would be no way I could eat both halves of each jianbing. Before I ran out of stamina, I set aside the original and tucked into the lamb. It had the same fillings as the original, with the addition of crumbly cumin-heavy bits of ground lamb and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. If lamb is your jam, like it is for me, you’ll like this one.
After lunch, I was curious to know more about the business behind the jianbing. The company is Bay Area-based, owned by Bo Wang, Sharon Ku and Conrad Wong. Wang and Ku started Hu Tong Jian Bing last fall, making their first appearance at the Norcal Night Market. Wang, an experienced chef from Beijing had long wanted to collaborate with Ku on a food project, and when the opportunity to sell as a vendor at the night market arose, they decided jianbing was the perfect dish.
“[Selling at] Night Market gave us a good idea to sell jianbing because it’s a street food and it totally matched what a night market sells. It turned out pretty good,” Ku told Nosh. Their stall was popular at the event, with many attendees waiting in a long line to get a taste of the crepes. Ku said the recipe was developed by Wang, who specializes in local Beijing cuisine. “People miss it. They’re from China. They like the taste of it.”
Following the success at the event, Hu Tong had their first pop-up in Berkeley at Uji Time in Berkeley. After that, it opened another pop-up in San Mateo at the former Elixiria café. (Although that café closed, the owner is allowing Hu Tong to operate in the space until a new owner takes over.) In January, Wang and Ku brought on Wong, and since then have expanded Hu Tong Jian Bing to three more locations in San Francisco, Millbrae and Sunnyvale. Ku said two more spots are opening soon in Fremont and San Francisco Chinatown, and there may be more outposts on the horizon, possibly one in North Berkeley. “But it depends on if we can find a good spot,” she said.
The reason the company has been able to expand so quickly is because of its business model. Not quite a pop-up or a franchise, Hu Tong Jian Bing partners with cafés and boba shops in the Bay Area that don’t currently offer food on its menu. Wong told Nosh that it offers partner businesses free ingredients, equipment, training, branding and advertising in exchange for a cut from the sales of its jianbing. The company has a 3,000-square-foot central kitchen in Alameda, where it prepares all the ingredients for partner vendors.
Wong couldn’t say how long Hu Tong Jian Bing would be available at Raretea, but he said the business has no plans to move on.
“We certainly hope this is going to be a long-term partnership. Indefinite would be awesome.”
Hu Tong Jian Bing is available at RareTea from noon to 11 p.m., daily.