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Bing Hopping: Adventures In Chinese Breakfast

Testing the bing at new chains Taoyuan Village and Huang Tai Ji, old-hand Yonghe Da Wang, and of course -- on the streets.
2015-05-29 12:44:03
“Hamburgers and pizza are paper tigers!” When your food is this bad, you have to resort to nationalism. That’s the sum total of my visit to Huang Tai Ji, where that jokey sign hangs, and where jianbing have gone wrong.

It’s a hopeful chain from Beijing, started in 2013, that opened near People’s Square last fall. Ironically, the Russian dressing in Huang Tai Ji’s 24rmb abomination of a jianbing -- wrapped around stir-fried noodles, deep-fried chicken tenders, “bacon”, and shredded lettuce -- gives it a taste not dissimilar to a Burger King Whopper.

There is an obvious explanation, in this introduction of Huang Tai Ji’s founder: “He Chang had no previous experience in the food or restaurant industry before starting his jianbing business, but his strong technology background allowed him to build his business by using unconventional methods and marketing techniques via the internet.”

I also tried the 9rmb original jianbing. A simple egg-topped crepe with a single youtiao inside -- this is Tianjin-style, without the fried wonton skin.

It has nothing on Shanghai’s streetside jianbing vendors, who are the obvious comparison. Taxonomy aside (what we get here are usually Shandong-style, not Tianjin-style), Huang Tai Ji’s are poorly made: torn crepe, stray eggshell. There is a conventional answer to these “unconventional methods”: don’t go.

But I did, and I wanted to find something to like. I was hoping the fresh soy milk would be the silver lining. It came so hot it’s a wonder the cup didn’t melt. I didn’t want to linger at Huang Tai Ji, so I took it with me on the taxi ride to Taoyuan Village, which has a better reputation for breakfast. Even after the 15-minute ride, Huang Tai Ji’s soy milk was scalding. I didn’t want to babysit any longer, so I threw the soy milk, and any hopes for Huang Tai Ji, in the closest garbage bin.

Taoyuan Village seemed more promising. It has of-the-moment design (vintage-ish / French tiles) and social buzz. 738 Dianping comments since opening five months ago. Infinite WeChat Moments. For a breakfast place, it has some style.

This time, I ordered my soy milk cold -- nice, creamy, not too beany -- and went for a shaobing, which is what half of customers at Taoyuan Village do. (The other half order a fantuan, a tube of rice the size of a burrito.)

The shaobing is a flaky, sesame bread with a big puff of air inside, making it look a lot more substantial than it is. On paper, it sounds like a reasonable vehicle for bacon and eggs, which Taoyuan Village offers for 25 rmb. In reality, that bacon is “bacon” and the egg, which is the height and size of a processed cheese slice, is a formality. Disappointing.

If I must breakfast at a chain, I’d still rather slink into a Yonghe Da Wang. They are conventional and corporate to the point of embarrassment (why does China keep putting me in this odd position of defending the big chains?), and you’d never take a selfie here.

But their omelet-wrapped youtiao is so intentionally oily -- and delicious -- they serve a plastic glove on the side. For a total of 10 rmb, it comes with a glass of fresh soy milk, at a drinkable temperature. No nationalism, no “design”, just a lot of cheap and greasy calories. Good morning!

The elephant at the breakfast table is the everyday jianbing seller. It’s hard to beat them on flavor -- sweet from the jiggly tianmian sauce (the brown one, often confused for hoisin); sour from zha cai, the pickled mustard tuber; savory from browning of the crepe; spicy, if you want it; fragrant with coriander and spring onion; and both soft and crunchy at the same time -- and impossible to beat them on price, when their capital investment is basically a cart and two putty knives.

The jianbing flavor formula has inspired people up and down the west coast of the USA: Seattle’s Bing of Fire; LA’s Buddha Bing; and even a guy on a bike-cart pedaling around San Francisco, calling himself Jian Bing Johnny. The American who started Mr Bing in Hong Kong is now gearing up to roll it out in the rest of the US. (Hong Kong economics closed the original shops).

And then there is Portland’s Bing Mi!, who was accused by a horde of online xenophobes of “stealing Chinese culture” -- nevermind the hundreds of French, Italian, Korean, Japanese and other restaurants in Shanghai owned and operated by Chinese. Paper tigers, indeed.

But that’s all a bit too much politics, idiocy and globalization for me at seven in the morning, when I don’t care about innovation and strong technological backgrounds, when I don’t want my breakfast paradigm "disrupted", and when I don’t need a well-designed restaurant. One jianbing, extra zha cai, and just a little spicy, please.

Photos by Rhiannon Florence and Brandon McGhee