Pasadena’s been a hotbed for new openings lately but its most recent addition — Vancouver-based mini-chain Me + Crepe (pronounced “me and crepe”) could send the sleepy Green Street block east of Raymond Street into the hype machine.
Though its name suggests the delicate pancakes from France, Me + Crepe is actually a restaurant dedicated almost exclusively to jianbing, or Chinese-style crepes. The small restaurant has been open since the beginning of October, but the lines at lunch time are already snaking out of the charming storefront.
Jianbing is a Chinese breakfast staple and one of the country’s most prevalent street foods. Legend has it that jianbing originated during the Three Kingdoms era (220 to 280 AD) at the behest of warlord Liu Bei’s chancellor, Zhuge Liang. Liang, the period’s most brilliant strategist — and a noted culinary genius — knew his soldiers lacked the woks to cook themselves a proper meal. As a result, Liang ordered his troops to cook a mixture of wheat and water atop their flat shields, and throw whatever else was on hand to eat on top. The rest, of course, is history.
At Me + Crepe, there are no shields, just the familiar round flat tops one would see on the streets of Beijing, situated in the open and visible cooking area. The cooks aren’t heading off to war but they are certainly soldiering away, pouring thin films of batter onto the drums, breaking up the egg yolks as they sweep over the pancake with a miniature hand-sized rake.
The cooks spread tianmian jiang, a salty-sweet (mostly salty) sauce, over the slowly firming batter before giving it a once-over treatment of red chili oil. Customized toppings come next, ranging from Peking duck, to pickled mustard greens, to even spam and tuna salad. Finally, a crunchy element: Diners can choose between a baocui (deep fried wonton skin) or youtiao (fried crueller). The former has a more simple crunch, while the latter has a more substantive bite.
The resulting concoction is rolled delicately on the flat top, almost like a French omelette, before it’s unceremoniously stabbed at the center with a spatula and folded at the resulting hinge. The finished product goes into a wax lined bag, and be advised — it’s hot.
One bite pretty much confirms why the dish is beloved in China. The savory egg and crepe pastry gives way to a crunchy youtiao, and a slight undercurrent of heat from the chili mingles with the salty rush from the tianmian jiang. The combination descends the diner into pure salty-spicy junk food pleasure.
Perhaps more famous at Me + Crepe than the original jianbing is their variety of savory toppings and pre-built jianbings better suited for a meal. A Peking duck crepe takes coriander, hoisin, cucumbers, baocui, and roughly a single “Chipotle scoop” of chopped duck to create something analogous to the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. And yes, there is a foie gras jianbing (the menu claims duck liver), where small, cooked pieces of the buttery liver are preciously arranged at the center of the crepe — and the price off the lot is roughly $40.
Fans of jianbing who experienced it first on the streets of China and are used to paying the equivalent of a couple dollars at most might be taken aback by the pricing (jianbing is famously affordable food), but it’s a relatively modest price to pay for those who don’t want to make the trek out to Fortune No. 1, or want to try some of the more interesting and customizable varieties of China’s favorite street food. Me + Crepe is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Me + Crepe. 89 East Green St. Pasadena, CA 91105 (626) 345-5291