Taste Acquired

W hen they were deciding the menu that would define Junzi Kitchen, a brand-new restaurant on Broadway, founders Ming Bai, Wanting Zhang and Yong Zhao started with memories from northeast China, where the three had grown up in different cities. When they came up with a potential dish, Zhao recalls, the next thing they did was call Mom. “Hey, there’s that thing you used to make when I was a kid. How did you make it?” They wanted to satisfy Americans hungering for something fast, surprising and customizable, but also other northeast Chinese expats longing for a taste of home.

That satisfaction has been a long time coming. When the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in America in the mid-19th century, they came mostly from the Guangdong province, in the south. Some opened restaurants, but the cuisine changed given the available ingredients and the tastes of diners. Items like broccoli and white button mushrooms were substituted for kai-lan and shiitake, while traditions like crispy chicken feet and edible swallows’ nests were dismissed as unpalatable.

Much later, during the mid-20th century, another wave of immigrants brought recipes from more diverse regions of China but covered them in sugary, starchy sauces to cater to American tastes. The prime example is General Tso’s Chicken, which in America is fried to a crisp and heavily sweetened. But the original dish, according to journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, is savory, garlicky and salty, and not even fried.

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The world is different now. Coming up in the Information Age, and with much readier access to exotic ingredients, Junzi’s minders have adopted an increasingly familiar menu structure that lets seasoned eaters indulge, and newbies ease into, its exotic content. You probably know the drill—order a base, then a protein, then top it how you like—but you probably don’t know the grill.

For example, Junzi’s main staple is bing, not rice. A bread from the cooler, dryer climes of northern China, where wheat has historically fared better than rice, it can be pressed into flat circles for wrapping or sliced into thin strips for noodling. Back home, chun (“spring”) bing signals the former tack, using the bread like a sandwich wrap to fill with assorted vegetables, sauces and—when available—meat. That emphasis, the reverse of what Americans are used to, stems from the fact that traditional Chinese diets, according to Zhao, consist primarily of grains and vegetables. Perhaps ironically, typical meat-centric Chinese food in America is actually quite indulgent for the average Chinese person. “My whole family probably eats one pig a year. … Fat is kind of a rare thing.”

Fortunately for Junzi, its vision of Chinese cuisine is syncing up with America’s emerging gastronomic common sense, as more and more people are reaching for the green and passing on the red. In Junzi’s “protein” section, meat options—delicious ones— make up three of five choices, but the vast majority of toppings come from the ground—from fresh items like chopped kale and julienned cucumber to treated ones like pickled daikon and chive ash.

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When it’s your turn in line, you’ll be prompted to choose between chun bing (one for $4.50 or two for $8) and a noodle bowl ($9), the latter coming with either “spring” (tubular, thin) or “knife” (flat, broad) noodles. With a base chosen, next comes the protein: seasoned chicken, braised beef, a newly added pork, grilled marinated tofu strips or juicy mushrooms coupled with an assortment of julienned, cooked-then-cooled “matchstick vegetables” (potatoes, carrots and celery). Then, with either bing or bowl, you get an unrestricted choice of garnishes like Chinese broccoli, sweet garlic, shrimp salt and a blazing chili oil.

But whatever combination of bing, sauces, garnishes and fillings you choose, none of it should leave your mouth and stomach feeling like a heavy oil slick. “If you need food fast, we’ll get it for you,” Zhao says, “but not greasy.” Of most American fast food restaurants, she says, “they treat food with no love. They treat people with no love. It’s all about money.”

Zhao envisions Junzi as a quick-service restaurant that treats both food and workers with care. While Junzi’s foodservice mechanism is essentially an assembly line, employees are encouraged to jump around and experiment. Adopting a program one of Junzi’s chefs, Lucas Sin, picked up from prior restaurant business experience, each day a different employee is tasked with preparing a team lunch using only the ingredients available in the kitchen. If the result is good enough, it has a chance to be featured on Junzi’s forthcoming late-night menu (a two-item, sweet-or-savory special menu planned for Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, no doubt timed to take advantage of hungry-student foot traffic). Most fast food workers “never have that kind of opportunity,” Zhao notes.

Such aspirations are encoded in Junzi’s name. A term that once simply denoted “prince,” “junzi” was retooled by Confucius to refer to an upright moral person—particularly one who fills the role of a silent teacher, serving as a strong example for others.

Opened not even a month—since October 21—Junzi is in its infancy, still learning to walk. But the food’s already good and, at peak times, the lines are already long and, compared to most fast food places, it’s already reached a higher ground.

Junzi Kitchen
21 Broadway, New Haven (map)
11am-9pm daily
(475) 441-7836

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1-3, 5 and 7-8 by Dan Mims. Photos 4 and 6 by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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