Long before Chipotle became a glint in Steve Ells’s eye — before there was even a boy named Steve Ells who would grow up and found a multinational burrito chain — there was chun bing, a celebrated dish in China. For centuries, men and women have rolled seasonal vegetables in flour pancakes and, in a ritual performed according to the traditional Chinese calendar, taken a ceremonial bite of spring. Chun bing is the sacrament for this annual rite, and it looks like, well, an Asian version of a Tex-Mex burrito.
Actually, it would be more fair and accurate to reverse the polarities of that description: The burrito is a Tex-Mex version of Chinese chun bing, since the former can trace its history only to the 19th century, at best. There are records, it appears, that show chun bing having been enjoyed since the Tang dynasty. If you don’t remember when this empire ruled over China, suffice to say it was a long time ago, before anyone thought to name a wrap after a little donkey.
It’s interesting to ponder why seemingly no one in the Washington area, until now, had thought of developing a fast-casual operation around chun bing. Maybe it’s simply a matter of ignorance. Maybe it’s because venture capital is not readily available to immigrants looking to launch such a business. The reasons don’t really matter much anymore, because we now have a fast-caz chun bing shop, and it’s called CB Chinese Grill.
The restaurant has put down roots in the ideal location: College Park, just steps from a campus full of hungry students who love new experiences and customization almost as much as they love a bargain. With chun bing, they can get it all with one hearty, handheld bite that, on the whole, is more gratifying than anything from Chipotle Mexican Grill, which, I should point out, has a location right across the street in the College Park Shopping Center.
CB Chinese Grill is the creation of Hua Wang, who gets my vote for restaurateur of the decade in College Park. She’s the same person responsible for the complex, multilayered Liaoning and Shaanxi dishes at Northwest Chinese Food, around the corner on Baltimore Avenue. She — and perhaps she alone — saw the potential for this time-honored Chinese dish to become a fast-casual heavyweight in the region.
Her operation is still a rough draft of a restaurant, at least cosmetically. Tucked between a Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza shop and a 7-Eleven, CB Chinese Grill relies on a banner that flaps in the breeze for its signage. The walls are decorated, if that’s the right verb to use, with chun bing T-shirts, unframed photos of the food and a couple of “fun trip” maps of China. The menu, affixed to the glass around the main counter, appears to be beset with typos, unless a “free ranch egg” is a new financial model for raising laying hens.
But you don’t go to CB Chinese Grill for the decor. You go for the chun bing, which is prepared fast-casual-style. Your preferred fillings and sauce can be stuffed into a house-made flour pancake or spooned atop rice. The latter option immediately takes you out of the realm of chun bing and into the vast kingdom of rice bowls. Perhaps I don’t need to say this, but I will anyway: If you order a rice bowl, you’re missing the point of CB Chinese Grill. The woman in the kitchen, the one using a Chinese wooden dowel to roll out dough? Her thin, stretchy, wonderfully chewy pancakes are the point.
As with any fast-casual, you’re the master of your fate here. One day, you might put together a combination of stir-fried eggplant, hot-and-sour shredded potatoes and strips of cold tofu, which sport these adorable little bumps, like gooseflesh. You might wrap this combo in a warm pancake brushed with house-made sesame sauce and decide it’s a passable bite, nothing more. But the next day, you might pack another griddled pancake with shredded pork, Northeast China’s sauerkraut, more hot-and-sour potatoes and a sweet bean sauce and realize that you’ve just seen the face of God. Results, as they say, vary.
It’s nearly impossible to go wrong with a wrap that starts with a thick brush of the house-made sweet bean sauce, which is a bottomless vat of umami. The sauce packs so much flavor that it makes any filling — even the “grilled sausage,” which looks a whole lot like an emulsified hot dog to me — assume a loftier status than it normally might. The only potential killjoy is the thickly sliced raw garlic, which you can add to any chun bing. Sometimes when you bite into a particularly fat slice of garlic, the clove immediately hijacks the entire preparation. Over time, I came to skip the garlic option completely, even though I love the stuff.
Wang also offers a second menu with non-chun bing dishes. My favorite is a cold, Northeastern-style noodle soup, in which the chilled vegetable broth gives way to alternating waves of spice, sweetness, acid and even a hint of smokiness. The complexity is beguiling, and just as important: The soup travels anywhere without degradation. The braised beef slices are also served cold, and they’re just as rewarding as the soup, each little square of meat scented with the fragrant spark of scallion and minced garlic. The Chinese kimchi, prepared with Napa cabbage, may not be as layered as the Korean version, but it packs a chile pepper wallop.
The ultimate question on your lips, I suspect, is this: Can CB Chinese Grill compete with the Chipotles of the world? In terms of aesthetics, speed and service, no, not yet. But when I think about which “burrito” I’d prefer riding shotgun with me on the way home from work, I almost daydream of chun bing with shredded pork in sweet bean sauce. It’s the kind of that fast-casual fantasy that Steve Ells and Chipotle can only dream about.
4370 Knox Rd., College Park, Md. 240-770-6791.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: College Park-U. of Md., with a .7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.25 to $11.75 for small plates and specials; $9.50 to $12.75 for chun bing and rice dishes.