Jian Bing is a Don’t Miss Breakfast in Shanghai


Living in the SGV, with its dizzying selection of regional Chinese restaurants, has its benefits, but there are some things I still miss from Shanghai. One of these things is the jian bing, a savory egg crepe that’s best eaten seconds after it comes off a hot plate. I feared that the fast modernization of Shanghai which was quickly replacing the old style tenements with luxury apartments would be the death of street food like this. I was grateful that on my last trip to Shanghai, there was not only still jian bing to be had, but that it was only a block away from where I was staying.


The telltale sign of a jian bing vendor is a large, round hotplate. It’s something that can be spotted from far away. The small crowd of people waiting for their breakfast is also a good sign. For less than one US dollar, I got a crunchy, savory breakfast that I had been looking forward to for years.

The jian bing vendor, a woman with a friendly but no-nonsense face, was a seasoned pro — quickly manipulating a thin layer of batter onto the hot, coal-heated hotplate. While the wheat batter cooked to a crisp, she broke an egg over the top, quickly spread and scrambled the egg before it set, smeared on a sweet and salty bean paste, some thin, spiced potato strips, a sprinkling of cilantro, and then a deep fried wonton wrapper. With her hands and a spatula, she deftly turned up the edge of the crepe, rolling it over itself into a long tube. Then “crunch!” as she used the edge of the spatula to crease the middle of the crepe, folded it in half, placed it into a thin plastic bag before handing it to me. She told me to eat it on the spot, reminding me to bite through both halves in one go. Still steaming from the heat, and pungent from the spiced potatoes, it was a great start to the morning.

On subsequent mornings, it became fascinating to watch the different customizations of jian bing customers were getting. Some prefer the added crunch of adding a you tiao (fried crueller). While she has a handful of you tiao (for 1RMB) for those who prefer it, one can also walk across the alley, buy a freshly fried you tiao from another vendor, and bring it over. One customer who lived nearby brought her own egg, saying she had extra at home, and got a 1RMB discount on her jian bing. Another brought his own sausage to add inside. And another wanted a cucumber inside. The customization options are endless. The jian bing vendor also remembered the preferences of her more frequent customers: less sweet, or no cilantro, or extra egg.

When she was done making all the jian bing orders of the morning and the customers were gone, the vendor packed up her stuff to go off to her second job, cleaning the house of a tenant of one of the luxury apartments nearby.

Independence Tavern

Independence Tavern opened in early February in the location that used to house Buddha’s Belly.  Named after the steam-powered railroad line that once ran from Santa Monica to San Pedro, it is now a New American style restaurant with an impressive menu and cocktail pedigree.  Tom Block, a friend who used to work at Beelman’s Pub, became the executive chef at Independence Tavern invited me for a hosted dinner to sample their offerings.

The Independence Tavern

The cocktail menu at Independence Tavern is overseen by Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro, which is conveniently located just a few doors down.  Rumor has it that he has a trap door that allows him to move between bars without having to step outside.  I started off with The Longshore, a bourbon-based cocktail that’s a little like an Old Fashioned and a little like a flip.  It is has an astringent flavor profile, which suited me fine.

The Independence Tavern

First came a wooden plank of oysters on a half shell.  The oysters were accompanied by smoked salmon roe and a delicate cube of apple. The sweet crunchiness of the apple was a pleasant contrast to the briny oysters and roe.

The Independence Tavern

Next came a shrimp and crab ceviche served with a flatbread more like a papadum than a tortilla.  The crisp flatbread worked well as a tool to deliver bites of tender shrimp and crab.

The Independence Tavern

Around the same time we were all digging into ceviche, another bowl of raw fish arrived. This time it was a red snapper crudo with candy striped beets, tangerines, serrano pepper, lime, and puffed rice.  I loved the variety in texture and the heat of the slices of spicy pepper, but the bites that I had were a little too sweet.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a beautifully plated slice of toast slathered with a smoked whitefish mixture that included shallot, apple, fried capers, radish, and garnished with cilantro blossoms. This was a unanimous crowd favorite. The toast was already cut into four pieces, which I was grateful for. There’s nothing harder than trying to divy up a piece of toast in a neat manner.

The Independence Tavern

To refresh our palates from all the fish, a rainbow-hued bowl of chopped salad came out.  Curled leaves of purple kale, an egg, roasted carrots, green beans, smoked white beans, feta, and candied walnuts was delicately dressed with a lemon mustard vinaigrette.  This crunchy bowl of vegetables was both healthy and appetizing, which I know can be hard to accomplish.

The Independence Tavern

Vegetarians will be pleased to know that the roasted mushrooms with the 62 degree egg and yuzu kosho hollandaise was egg-cellent. Yes, I went there. The meatiness of the mushrooms and the rich egg yolk make you forget that there’s no meat in this dish. The sharp fragrance of the yuzu helps keep the mushrooms’ earthiness in check.

The Independence Tavern

Next came one of my favorite dishes of the night, which was the grilled octopus.  The octopus arm was served whole — great presentation which made me think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Not only did this dish look good, but it tasted fantastic.  The octopus was unbelievably tender while still retaining its core texture.  The beans, grapes, celery, and pickled chili sounded like a strange conversation, but each element worked well together to form a cohesive dish.

The Independence Tavern

After that, we were served a tortellini duo: some stuffed with herbed goat cheese and others with spaghetti squash with brown butter, roasted apple, and parmesan.  I did not win the tortellini lotto and only managed to pick out the spaghetti squash-filled ones, but that was fine.

The Independence Tavern

Following that pasta dish was another pasta dish with venison ragu.  The house made pappardelle was good, but I found the ragu a bit salty.

The Independence Tavern

Then came a roast chicken with beluga lentils, leg confit, guanciale, and broccoli di ciccio.  I really liked the sweet, snappy broccoli with its spritz of lemon. I had mistaken a cube of guanciale for a cubed potato in the dim lightning, but it was a great surprise for my mouth.

The Independence Tavern

The dark horse of the night was the spicy cauliflower with preserved lemon and Thai chili.  The colorful cauliflower and Romanesco broccoli was crisp, but not hard, and the preserved lemon dressing was perfect.  If this were served on top of some puffed rice, I could see it becoming a popular vegetarian or even vegan entree.

The Independence Tavern

A dish I’d like to refer to as The Flavorbomb came out to top off the meal. The rack of lamb with Thai red curry rub, smoked eggplant puree, coconut, and bok choy was a memorable way to end the night.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, but what really got everyone talking was the eggplant puree.  Its dramatic black color and intense smokiness really outshone everything else on the plate for the other diners.  Personally, I really liked the combination of the Thai red curry and the bok choy.

The Independence Tavern

Toward the later half of the meal, I ordered a second cocktail: The Smoke of Scotland.  With its cask strength Laphroig scotch, it really packs a punch. The peaty flavor of the cocktail makes it a great sipper, but not something I would recommend to eat before or with a meal.  I was concerned that the elderflower liquor would be too cloying, but I actually didn’t detect any hint of it in the cocktail. Lesson learned: trust Vincenzo.

I may be biased because the chef is a friend, but the menu at Independence Tavern is great, especially the “Sea” section.  The dishes on it manage to be exciting and different while still being accessible to most palates.  What’s even better is that the kitchen is willing to accommodate most vegetarian and vegan diets. I hear with enough advance notice, they can even put together a vegan tasting menu. For those who only  want to stick with what they know, there is also a pretty tame sandwich and burgers section.

 

Independence Tavern
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
310 458-2500

Kaioo Ramen

Kaioo* Ramen opened in the first week of February, replacing an unsuccessful hotpot restaurant.  With the LA ramen revolution in full swing, it’s nice to see some new places to slurp the hot bowls of noodle in the SGV.

kaioo_ramen2

On my first visit, I ordered the eponymous Kai Original Ramen bowl in a combo with gyoza.  The ramen came with slick, chewy yellow noodles in a delicious, rich broth.  Unlike other ramen places, the broth is a chicken broth base. The pork chashu topping came chopped up instead of in slices like the picture, but was still decent.  There was also ground pork sprinkled on top, which was a nice touch. My favorite part was the chili and chives mixture, giving eac spoonful of broth a pungent, spicy, taste.  According to the waitress, their style of ramen is Kobe style.

kaioo_ramen3

The gyoza that accompanied my ramen catered to the Chinese palate, which is understandable since this ramenya is located in a plaza mostly full of Chinese customers.  Instead of a garlicky filling, it had green onion or chives.  The skin was also surprisingly delicate and soft without being mushy.

kaioo_ramen1

After spending a week trying out ramen at other local places, Kaioo Ramen managed managed to perk my interest even then. I’m planning on returning next time for the tsukemen and the spicy chicken ramen.

 

Kaioo Ramen
1261 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, CA 91801
626-940-5541

* There’s some confusion in the name. The menu makes it look like “Kai Ramen” but on Yelp it says Kaioo Ramen. And on the credit card bill, it says Kai Oo Ramen.