“Nothing in the world is worth turning one’s back on what one loves.” — Albert Camus, “The Plague”
“May you live in interesting times…” — Traditional Chinese curse, apocryphal
As I write this, three restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley just announced indefinite closures in the wake of the newly declared global coronavirus pandemic.
By the time you read this, many more closures, postponements and cancellations will have ensued. Is it now better or worse than last week?
Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants were among the first to suffer the effects of a spooked local populace. Food writers and blogs have been exhorting us to patronize Chinatown establishments, even as precautions widen. Are we too late to the party?
We don’t have a Chinatown in Pasadena. (We don’t really need one. A vast landscape of options unfolds with just a quick drive east.) That said, we do have a host of credibly authentic Chinese restaurants right in town. Old Pasadena throngs routinely line up in front of Lunasia, Shandong Dumpling or the brand new Chef Tony’s for dim sum. However, the better-informed local fresser looking for something unique will turn the corner from North Raymond Avenue onto East Green Street to discover the tiny, nearly hidden jewel of Me + Crepe.
Curiously, Pasadena also harbors a cache of creperies all clustered within blocks of each other. Despite its name, Me + Crepe does not serve French-style crepes. Here, Beijung-style jianbing are the specialty and the dominant menu item. Jianbing – also referred to as “bing” — are savory thin crepes that are filled, rolled and folded at the center into a vector. Wedged into a square paper envelope, you peel the seams as you munch your way down each leg of the folded crepe.
As I chat with general manager Louisa Shi, a couple wanders in looking for … Nutella? Not here!
Traditionally, jianbing are served for breakfast. As they became a common street-food offering across China, they also became a popular late-night drinking snack. At Me + Crepe, their “fusion” styles are diverse, delicious and generously portioned. You won’t leave hungry.
The relatively brief menu includes about a dozen bing preps and runs from the popular favorite “Peking Duck” ($12.95), Crawfish ($16.95), Cumin Lamb (11.95), Braised Pork Ribs ($11.95) to the more eclectic “Golden Tuna” ($9.95) “California Chicken” ($12.95) and vegetarian “Garden” ($8.95). All of these are typically dressed with scallions and cilantro and there is a long list of “Add-ons” for a nominal additional charge. These include: “Pickled Greens” (50 cents); “Roasted Seaweed” (90 cents); and “Dried Pork Floss” ($1.49). Tofu soups and congee ($5.95), and Bento boxes ($7.95) also complement the jianbing experience here.
Opening in Pasadena in October 2018, a new location debuted in Rowland Heights just six months ago. In fact, Me + Crepe is a small but burgeoning international chain with locations in Canada, Italy and China, in addition to Seattle and the two locations in SoCal. The concept of a dedicated jianbing shop was hatched originally by a group of entrepreneurial college classmates at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, in 2016. As local owner/partner Elena Yi explains, the first Vancouver locations were engineered by her friends Jerry You and Zhenlin Li. Elena then partnered with Serena Liu to join the team in staking out territory in California. The two partners are now actively scouting Irvine in Orange County.
“I didn’t know starting a restaurant was so tough… especially in Pasadena! There are a lot of restaurants here!” Elena goes on to also describe the process of converting the city’s permitting
for the tiny 12-seat space from retail to dining. It took her a full year to finalize the permitting to open the restaurant in Pasadena. For the shop in Rowland Heights, the process took all of one month. And now the virus…
As we chat, a large order is being prepared for a group of students at USC, where Elena does graduate work in Project Management. The campus had just shuttered that morning because of the pandemic. She describes the mounting economic hardships endured by relatives in China, while noting that her own supply chains here have been sustained by local Chinese markets that are stocked with three-month advance inventories.
“Opening up in Pasadena is hard (but) I accomplished something. It’s an accomplishment!”
Included by Eater LA in February as one of “18 Essential Pasadena Restaurants” Me + Crepe is a local accomplishment that deserves to be sustained and supported.
Elena’s declaration also inspires a bit of hopeful resilience as we all face down the daily uncertainty that has evolved into an oddly unsettling “new normal.”
Interesting times indeed… –