THE LOOP — The street food called jianbing is ubiquitous in Ye "Red" Yuan's hometown of Tianjin, China. People eat it for breakfast or late at night, after drinking. It's fast, cheap, tasty and elicits little of the analysis or hype that, say, whiskey and doughnuts do these days.
But Yuan, 28, of Bridgeport has been thinking about jianbing a lot lately and how the crepelike snack, so popular in northern Chinese cities, is nowhere to be found in Chicago, his adopted home for the last eight years. And so he's building a business around it, cooking it just as it they do at streetside stalls in Tianjin.
Two weeks ago, Yuan and his wife, Caitlin Bauler, 29, set up a stand at The Nosh alfresco market to introduce jianbing and their business, Nali (Mandarin for "where" or "there," depending on how you say it).
Janet Fuller explains how this couple found each other from halfway around the world:
Jianbing (pronounced JEEYUN-bing) is a large, thin pancake made of mung bean and millet. It's spread on one side with eggs and herbs, flipped, topped with fried wontons, smeared with chili or soy paste and folded up into a tidy packet.
Yuan and Bauler offer two nontraditional fillings: clay-pot braised pork belly and a vegetarian one they've dubbed "gua-kale-mole."
Jianbing is typically washed down with freshly made hot soy milk, something Bauler said they are working on. For now, they're making cold almond tea ($3) — a Chinese version of horchata, if you will — and curried pickled vegetables ($3) as accompaniments to the jianbing, which costs $8.
Yuan, who went to culinary school in China, cooks to order on a crepe griddle, the closest thing the couple could find to what's used in China.
He has been refining his recipes and technique at home for months now, but he and Bauler, a Glen Ellyn native, have talked about starting a business for about four years, she said.
The couple met five years ago while working at the Noble Square restaurant Usagi Ya, she in the front of the house, he in the kitchen.
They left in 2011 to help their friend, chef Kee Chan, open Lure Izakaya Pub in Chinatown with French chef Eric Aubriot. Yuan said the experience opened his eyes to the fascinating overlap in cuisines as varied as Japanese, Mexican and his own.
Lure closed after a year. Yuan moved on to another sushi restaurant in Lincoln Park, and Bauler returned to the graphic design field, in which she'd worked after college.
All the while, Yuan said, "I always complain about Chicago, how there's no good Chinese food. One thing I realized was if I don't do something about it, then don't complain."
And he missed jianbing.
The couple began putting together a plan and all the requisite paperwork for Nali last year. They had hoped to join the Nosh winter market in Logan Square, but the timing didn't work out.
Besides, it was only a month ago in his home kitchen that Yuan said he finally nailed the jianbing batter.
"I put it in my mouth and was like, 'Wow. Yes,'" he said.
At their Nosh debut two weeks ago, the enthusiastic, if small, stream of customers included a Chinese woman who appeared shocked to see jianbing outside of its native habitat.
That woman, Yan Wang, returned to the Nosh on Friday with her husband, Shao Bin Sun, a native of Tianjin, where jianbing originated. They work Downtown and live in Arlington Heights.
"He's been craving it for a long time. He even tried to make it at home," Wang said.
The couple ate their jianbing on a bench, nodding in approval.
"I'm pretty excited. I have a lot of friends from my region, and they all like it, but it's just so hard to find here," Sun said.
That might not be the case for too long.
Chan, Yuan and Bauler's former boss, said another of his former employees at Strings, his Chinatown restaurant, is looking for a place to open a jianbing joint.
"Jianbing is getting popular in New York," Chan said. "You know Chicago. We're always behind the game a little bit, but I think it's something that's not so complicated for people to try."
That's the ultimate goal for Yuan and Bauler, too — a small restaurant, around 20 seats, where they would serve jianbing and other Northern Chinese specialties.
It would be a welcome sight to Drew Strellis, 27, a River North business analyst.
Strellis studied in China a decade ago in a high school exchange program, where he ate jianbing daily. He did a double take on Friday when he saw the Nali stand and the jianbing sign. Though he'd already eaten lunch, he ordered a pork-filled jianbing anyway.
"I can't pass it up," he said.
Bauler said they are working to get a second griddle so they can participate in other markets. For now, the couple and their jianbing can be found from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays at The Nosh, Two North Riverside Plaza, at the southeast corner of Canal and Washington streets.
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