The best way to describe Junzi Kitchen is if Chipotle started serving Chinese food.
Customers who walk into this fast-casual joint in New York are offered two choices of carbs popular in northeastern China: a flour wrap called chunbing (春饼) or a bowl of noodles. They can then fill it with whatever meat, vegetables, sauces, and garnish they want.
“Americans will immediately know it as an Asian burrito when they see it,” says Yong Zhao, co-founder of Junzi Kitchen.
The restaurant, which derives its name from the Chinese word for gentleman, is one of many in New York City feeding a growing hunger for “authentic” Chinese food, as loaded as the term can be.
This new crop of hipster spots, mostly run by Western-educated Chinese and Chinese-Americans, hopes to break the stereotype of Chinese food as greasy, cheap, and MSG-filled.
There’s Xi’an Famous Foods, which grew from a family-run stall in Flushing, Queens, to a small chain specializing in northwestern Chinese cuisine. In the East Village and Bryant Park, Málà Project serves up a unique form of hot pot—dry without soup—that originated in Chongqing. In the East Village alone, there are restaurants offering rice noodles from provinces as varied as Hunan, Yunnan, and Sichuan.
But while these restaurants are trying to stand out by unabashedly offering a region’s traditional specialties, Junzi Kitchen, founded by a group of Ivy League grads from China, is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Their bet is that they can offer Chinese food catering to the American palate while staying true to their northeastern Chinese roots.
While Sichuan cuisine is known for its spicy punch and Guangdong prides itself on subtle flavors, northeastern China is not particularly known for gourmet food. Still, the region’s hearty and simple fare fits the Chipotle model that Junzi evokes.
There are none of the tropes of Chinese-American banquet restaurants—no water lily pond, no lanterns. The decor is minimalist, with walls painted in bright pastels accented by natural light flooding in from the large windows.
The minimalist menu includes bilingual puns. One of the sauce options is Sweet Bei, a saccharine bean sauce from Beijing made with fermented soybeans and wheat.
Another clever bit of subversion: the Lays chips on sale are actually imported from China.
“It's an American brand,” says Lucas Sin, Junzi’s head chef. “And we’re trying to bring it back here with a new twist.”
(Read more: The Oreo flavors only available in China)
For people who associate Chinese food with either audacious banquet restaurants or cheap takeout, Junzi’s position in the middle can be refreshing.
“We are targeting customers outside of China who have no particular understanding of Chinese food,” says Zhao, “and we’re doing it in a simple, direct way so that the food can enter their day-to-day life.”
Inevitably, some things get lost in that pursuit. Junzi decided not to serve more esoteric dishes, sticking with bing and noodles as a base while being more creative and aggressive with the ingredients.
Sweet Bei, for instance, is a modification of Liubiju, a household brand of sweet bean sauce from China. Junzi’s beef shank is prepared with ginger, scallion, and soybean paste, a northeastern Chinese specialty.
That said, there are ways in which the team has catered to New York’s hipster palate. Kale is used in the noodle salad. Sweet potato, an American classic, is stir-fried the northern Chinese way in one of the fall menu dishes.
In many ways, Junzi’s catering to New Yorkers’ taste mirrors the cultural accommodation that gave rise to Chinese-American creations like chop suey and General Tso’s chicken. The difference is that the current wave of Chinese chefs isn’t cooking for working-class immigrant enclaves. All three of Junzi’s locations, for instance, are in university neighborhoods.
(Read more: The not-so-Chinese origins of General Tso’s chicken)
And unlike their forebears, the founders of Junzi have the privilege of sticking to what they believe is the true flavor of home—and selling it to a public willing to try.
“We have to be authentic to our vision, our memory,” Sin says, “and we have a very strong preference for what that memory is.”