The New Kid on My Block: Junzi Kitchen

As I noted in my post on the persistent presence of Flying Pig’s jian bing cart, along with other authentic Chinese food carts, parked in front of Columbia University, our Morningside Heights neighborhood is gradually adapting to the influx of Chinese students by opening more authentic Chinese restaurants.

Recently, the clumsily named 108 Food Dried Hot Pot took up residence in a former Irish Bar. Painted a bold Chinese red with exposed brick walls inside, the restaurant had a line outside the day it opened. The counter staff speak almost no English, so there's some confusion as you pick from an unlabeled salad bar array of everything from skinned frog to beef tendon and a host of unidentifiable fish, meat and vegetable pieces as you purchase by the pound. These are stir fried with what seems like two dozen dried red chili peppers (normal spicy), numbing Szechuan peppercorns, chili oil, scallions, and ginger and served in a wooden bowl. No one better have a communicable illness, because you all eat from the same bowl. The wooden bowls kind of skeeve me out a little. I never thought you served meat on wood, especially meat that was raw about three minutes before it was served to you. There are other things to note before ordering, which I summarized in this text, full of texty-typos, to my neighbors before they went last night:

Counteracting the cautions, however, it is a fun adventure (romantic even, for our cutest couple neighbors), reminiscent of sharing Ethiopian food. I would recommend enoki mushrooms, the tiny eggs (quail?), which were soft and runny inside, chicken, streaky pork and plump squid—can’t go wrong there—plus the dark green seaweed knots, tree ear mushrooms and the fried tofu, which has a wonderfully spongy texture that soaked up the spicy, gingery sauce.

Boy, did I go off track! Anyhoooo....Junzi kitchen had its soft opening June 14th.  Only four blocks north of the the hot pot venue, Junzi is world’s away in that it is a “concept” Chinese restaurant, translated for American palates; think a Chinese Sweetgreen or Digg In. The founders, Yale University graduates, opened their first “fast casual” Junzi kitchen, now hugely popular, in New Haven. Junzi's founders focused on the food of their homeland, Northern China, poor for rice but great for wheat and known for "bing"--white or wheat flour pancakes that are also sliced into noodles. Anyone who loves Moo Shu pork or Peking duck will love a  chun bing ($7.81-odd price point), and if you're too confused by the array of choices--braised meats, Chinese vegetables, pickles, sauces, you can choose their suggested chun bing or noodle bowl combos (as my son and I did).

Maybe influenced by my hot pot experience, I opted to play it safe with a pork/chive chun bing and sweet Hoisin-like sauce, so it really DID taste like moo shu pork pancake, with the added funky element of exotic garnishes like chive ash and shrimp salt. More satisfying was our jaja beef noodle bowl, which we ordered with thick "knife cut" noodles that held the sauce and reminded me of the great Northern Chinese, cumin infused flavor of Xian Famous Foods lamb burger--hearty for a hot summer day but cucumber, celery and chive ash garnishes cool things down. I scraped the bottom of our cardboard bowl wanting more. 

And I will come back for more. In a neighorhood renowned for bland, unremarkable restaurants that cater to a captive college student audience I'm grateful when the culinary offerings get more interesting. Junzi will need time to come into its own--and judging from the fun initiatives they've instituted in their flagship New Haven Junzi (their Night Lunch!)--they may well bust the walls of their own concept.  On another note, I'm very happy that Yale grads are using their business acumen to start restaurants instead of hedge funds! 

Junzi Kitchen
2896 Broadway (@W. 113th St.)

108 Food Dried Hot Pot
2794 Broadway