MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — When New Yorkers think of authentic Chinese food, it's the soup dumplings of Shanghai, the mapo tofu of Sichuan, the crispy fried chicken of Canton that typically come to mind.
Less known are the chun bings of Northern China, thin flour pancakes used to wrap sliced meats and fresh vegetables and traditionally eaten to celebrate spring's arrival.
That's what Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual restaurant establishing its first New York City location at 2896 Broadway, will be serving alongside noodle bowls when it opens its doors to Columbia University students and Morningside Heights residents later this month.
The eatery got its start in New Haven, Conn., where three Yale masters' program students missing the flavors of their Northern Chinese hometowns opened the first Junzi Kitchen near the campus in October 2015.
“I wanted something fast, convenient, affordable, but that also tastes good and tastes familiar,” said co-founder Yong Zhao.
With the help of chef Lucas Sin, a Hong Kong-born Yale graduate, Zhao, Wanting Zhang and Ming Bai developed a menu that lets customers customize their chun bings or noodle bowls with the meat, vegetables, garnishes and sauces of their choice. Bings come in white and whole wheat flour varieties, and diners can select either wide knife or thin spring noodles.
Chef Lucas Sin and Junzi Kitchen co-founder Yong Zhao (credit: Junzi Kitchen)
Sin visited Zhao's hometown in China's Liaoning province twice as part of his research, he said.
“Northern Chinese flavors are foreign even to people in China," Sin said. "A lot of people like to think of it as peasant food — a little too rustic, a little too savory and salty.”
One unique element of the cuisine is its reliance on pickling techniques and fermented soybean-based condiments, such as the "sweet bei" sauce on Junzi's menu.
In New Haven, Junzi is known not just for its distinctive eats, but its experimental, collaborative attitude. The Connecticut location hosts "night lunches" on Friday and Saturday evenings, which feature Chinese street foods and dishes concocted by kitchen staffers.
Junzi's first foray into the New York dining scene won't start "night lunches" until "sometime over the summer we hope," Sin said, but they'll feature an entirely new cocktail selection based on teas served during the daylight hours, such as the smoky but floral gunpowder rose.
“Adding whisky to that is really awesome, so that could be a cocktail offered at 'night lunch,'” Sin said.
On the business end, Zhao and his co-founders plan to open a third location near New York University sometime in the future. In the longer run, their concept could eventually cater to the Midtown office crowd seeking convenient lunch options, he said.
At 2896 Broadway, a property owned by Columbia University, Zhao said he envisions creating a "space that people want to bring their friends to" and a lunch spot that becomes part of students' daily routines.
According to Sin, the interior will reflect a "contemporary Chinese design sensibility," with the incorporation of materials like plywood and swallow-tail stools crafted with an ancient Chinese technique that eschews glue and nails.
Prices at the second Junzi will average $1 to $2 higher than those in New Haven, where two chun bings cost $8.50 and a noodle bowl goes for $9.