If you’ve never been to China or aren’t familiar with the more esoteric offerings in LA’s San Gabriel Valley, you’ve probably never heard of jianbing, let alone eaten one. I tasted my first jianbing only a week ago, despite having watched countless videos about the street food on YouTube.
A jianbing is essentially a breakfast crepe. In China, variations exist from city to city and from vendor to vendor, but the basics of this early-morning delicacy are as follows: Batter—usually made of wheat, mung-bean and millet flours—is poured on a flat cooking surface and spread thin with a wooden scraper. Then an egg is cracked on top, the yolk and albumen smeared into a film until it fuses and cooks onto the crepe. Next, herbs such as cilantro are sprinkled over it, various sauces are brushed on, and a few leaves of lettuce are added for crunch. Finally, and most crucial, a crispy, deep-fried plank of something akin to wonton skin is placed near the edge before the whole thing is folded up like a letter, cut in half and served hot.
In all the videos I’ve seen, the dish is always made-to-order, with the customer watching the entire process from start to finish. As such, long queues are routine. But as popular as it is in China, jianbing is a rare specimen in Orange County. Sightings of it are as elusive as those of Bigfoot or Nessie. That is, until, Mrs. Bean opened in MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana.
As far as I know, Mrs. Bean is the first jianbing specialist in our region. And located in a stall between JC Penney and Macy’s—the last place I expected jianbings to turn up—Mrs. Bean’s chefs build them on a French crepe maker. But as surprised as I was to see it here, stranger things have happened. A couple of years ago, I would’ve called you crazy if you told me that Din Tai Fung would open at South Coast Plaza and become its most popular eatery. Now, looking at the full spectrum of ethnicities eating on Mrs. Bean’s patio under the JC Penney atrium, it made me realize how far Orange County’s food scene has come in the past few decades. What Mrs. Bean is selling in this mall—which also still has a Panda Express—is Chinese food that’s actually from China.
Since I can’t imagine many of its main components (the egg, the lettuce, the fried wonton skin) would taste that different on the mainland, I must conclude that Mrs. Bean’s jianbings are the real thing. The source of most of its flavor—a sauce called lajiao whose composition varies but is often described as sweet, spicy and savory in the vein of hoisin—was exactly that. But the experience of eating jianbing is primarily about the interplay of temperatures and textures that happens when the chilled crunch of the lettuce contrasts with the warm pliancy of egg and crepe. And, of course, there’s the constant crackle of that fried wonton skin—the sensation that makes a jianbing a jianbing and the reason it’s only good for as long as the crunch lasts.
In essence, a jianbing is a Chinese breakfast burrito. Its only fault is that it’s not quite substantial enough for lunch. For that reason, Mrs. Bean rounds out its menu with Chinese noodles and rice plates. It also offers five kinds of ramen. But if you’re ordering the ramen here instead of the niu rou mian, you’re missing the point entirely.
Also known as braised beef noodle, niu rou mian is Chinese soul food: Thick, chewy noodles submerged in a dark, lip-smacking soup coaxed from simmering tendony beef in a pot for hours. It’s a dish that’s classically Northern Chinese but has spread to other territories, even Taiwan.
Though Mrs. Bean’s version lacks the punchy star anise aroma and complexity of other bowls served in OC, it’s a great deal at $8. It comes with a nice soy-seasoned hard-boiled egg, bok choy and a generous helping of those slow-cooked hunks of beef. And for 2 bucks more, the cashier will tack on a tea drink and tell you to add two sides, which include gyozas, fried chicken nuggets, egg rolls with the usual Day-Glo orange sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, and an all-you-can-eat pass at its small salad and pickles bar.
And because Din Tai Fung has now fully acclimated the masses to xiao long bao, you can also order a piping basket of it at the counter just as easily as you would a corndog at Hot Dog on a Stick. Mrs. Bean’s xiao long bao skins aren’t as delicate and the pork filling isn’t as melting as Din Tai Fung’s, but I still rejoice in the fact that I can have them here in a mall where the heady scent of Cinnabon still haunts the air.
Mrs. Bean, 2800 N. Main St., Ste. 1048, Santa Ana, (714) 878-5678; www.mrsbeanusa.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Dishes, $6-$10. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.