I came to New Haven fully prepared to never eat Chinese food again. Getting off the bus at Phelps Gate was the same as kissing goodbye to the char siu bao (BBQ pork buns), siu mai, and spicy mala hotpot I grew used to eating in Hong Kong, and replacing them with buttermilk pancakes, roasted brussel sprouts, and mac and cheese. To expect anything more would be setting absurdly high expectations for our New England college town, which is quaint in some ways but sophisticated in others. And as low as the bar was for the availability of Chinese food, it was met. The Asian food in Yale’s dining halls and New Haven generally just ain’t it, for lack of a better expression.
It’s difficult being separated from my brunch staples—steamed buns with lucious egg yolk custard or rice noodle rolls smothered in soy sauce, to name a few—especially without any viable alternatives. In Yale dining halls, the only East Asian menu I’ve ever come across serves pineapple fried rice that’s cooked to al-dente, because somehow, the same university which ranked third in America, which educated five U.S. Presidents, which boasts an endowment surpassing 42 billion dollars, can only manage to cook rice the way it cooks pasta.
On other days in the dining hall, I eat curry with so little spice that the gravy is indistinguishable from water, or wide and clearly Western-grown green beans awkwardly cooked in clearly not enough sichuan spices—so little that they don’t numb the mouth the way they should, or half-decent kimchi which disheartens me once I figure out that it is store bought. Regardless, on all occasions, I am sorely disappointed in the quality and quantity of Asian food on campus and in our city. But more importantly, I sorely miss the tastes and flavors that have constructed my palate through the twenty years of my brief existence—the tastes and flavors of the places I have once and still call home.
I walked into Junzi Kitchen on Broadway on a Sunday afternoon accompanied only by two friends and low expectations. Too many of my weekend brunches at New Haven have become bland and unexciting ways to start my day; none have come to match the experience of eating crispy roast pork belly, (properly cooked) fried rice, and my favorite char siu bao with my family in a restaurant overlooking Hong Kong’s beautiful skyline, all for the equivalent of less than $25 per person.
I paid $15 for my own custom bowl with knife-cut noodles, spicy sesame sauce, sichuan grilled pork, bean sprouts, and diced cucumber, all the while fully aware of the mediocre reviews of the restaurant that have preceded me. “Junzi is not that good,” an American-born Chinese girl once remarked to me after math class.
But no, ABC girl from my math class, you were wrong. Junzi Kitchen was that good.
I mixed the bowl, and its aroma opened a portal to a place, to people, and to a home. I slurped, exhaled, and salivated on every. Single. Bite. Its sauce reminded me of takeout nights by the pier, where my friend would only ever order fan pei, a dish with the same gooey, rich sesame coating. Its spicy roast pork reminded me of the first time my brother and I ate sichuan peppercorns by accident—”it’s really good, but it feels like being suckerpunched.” Its knife-cut noodles, an ingredient once unfamiliar to me, reminded me of a city that was once new and strange but soon became familiar. A city to the south of Guangdong, a city called Hong Kong. A city that I have once (and still) call home.
I was so deep in thought that I did not utter a single word to my friends. So lost in pure nostalgia of times not too long ago, I could do nothing but wish with deep despair that Yale Dining Halls could serve some Chinese food every once in a while. I let out a long bittersweet exhale of relief—mourning the tastes I had missed, but consoled by their return.
But I digress, why must Yale satisfy me? I’m nothing but a small and very picky fish with a niche food palate in the larger ocean that is Yale’s 6,000+ strong undergraduate student body. Besides, the buttermilk pancakes, corn casserole, and readily available Brick Oven pizza are all delectable delicacies which satisfy the tastes of most of Yale’s student body. On some occasions, they have satisfied me too.
But until the day I find myself back in Hong Kong, eating char siu bao at brunch with my family in a restaurant that overlooks the city’s beautiful skyline, I will hold out. On another Sunday, I will eat in Junzi Kitchen.