If you are from Tianjin, the major port city in Northeast China, jianbing in Monterey Park must be a powerful source of food nostalgia. You might remember the lady in Tianjin cooking it on the sidewalk and the dank smell of sulfurous charcoal. You might recall the plastic buckets that stored the dish’s ingredients: a thick multigrain batter, eggs, chives, a gravy similar to Sichuan broad bean paste and large square blistered wontons called bao cui. And you might recollect the process: The batter is spread, an egg is cracked, the gravy is slathered, the fried crunchy square is added and the result is wrapped.
This final product is jianbing, a sort of Chinese burrito-crepe that is substantial enough to feed the Rock and cheap enough to appeal to college kids. The pancake is earthy and filling, not unlike a buckwheat crepe you’d find in a traditional Brittany ciderhouse. The gravy lends saltiness and the fried crunchy square offers, well, crunch.
Jianbing is the sort of ubiquitous Chinese street food that arrives in the San Gabriel Valley without much fanfare but fills an important niche for the homesick eater. If you enter Monterey Park’s Fortune No. 1 or Garage Restaurant on a weekend morning, nearly every table has ordered the thing. It might not be quite as good as the one made by that jianbing lady next to the Beijing subway stop, but the crowds seem satisfied. Both restaurants are as simple as it gets, even by SGV standards; their small menus are primarily composed of simple breakfast foods such as baos and other basic Tianjin fare.
A couple of months ago, the truck Buddha Bing began docking around L.A. selling amplified versions of jianbing. One includes cubes of rich braised pork belly; another has boneless three-cup chicken of the sort available in Taiwan. One creation, poetically named “The Dankest,” is decidedly L.A.: It's filled with bacon, avocado and cheese.
But if you’re feeling nostalgic rather than adventurous, they’ll cook you a more traditional jianbing. Just ask for one with a fried crunchy square.
Fortune No 1, 138-A E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 569-9592.
Garage Restaurant, 123 N. Lincoln Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 573-9088.
Buddha Bing; Follow @eatbuddhabing for latest locations.