Gradually, northern Chinese street snacks have become commonplace in New York City. It was 22 years ago that thick-skinned northern dumplings dropped at Fried Dumpling on the Lower East Side, bursting with pork and chives at the astonishing price of five for a dollar, though kimchi cost extra. Soon there were a half dozen similar places, which also began selling wedge-shaped sandwiches made with sesame bread stuffed with dried beef and pickled veggies.
Where was the rice?, people wondered as these treats, so different from the southern Chinese food many New Yorkers were used to, attained prominence.
Seven years later, a stall in Flushing’s Golden Mall introduced the Chinese hamburger — a term applied by the owner’s son, Jason Wang, to describe a steamed bao folded over a filling of cumin-scented lamb. Though not really a hamburger, it galvanized the public and eventually spawned a now-familiar local chain specializing in food from China’s northwest, Xi’an Famous Foods.
Four years ago, at Mr. Bing, the jian bing, a street food often seen in Beijing and Shanghai, unpacked its suitcase. It consists of a thin pancake made from a mixture of flours with a fried egg and crunchy wafer pinned inside, further stuffed with cucumber, sweet bean paste, and sometimes hot dogs. Recently, the jian bing has been rendered in cold form and engulfed in fiery mayo at Public Village, showing how these snacks evolve here in New York.
Now a delightful new snack has arrived called guo kui (pronounced gwow kway). It originated as a thick, round, sweet pancake in the north-central province of Shaanxi, whose capital is Xi’an. Other versions of this snack arose in Sichuan and Henan, but the one brought here is in the style of Jingzhou, a city of 5 million in Hubei, 400 miles south of Xi’an. The same style has also been spotted in Singapore.
This version of guo kui is an oblong much flatter and flakier than the Shaanxi original. On its surface are embedded black sesame seeds and sometimes other seasonings; sparse amounts of filling are concealed inside. Discover it at Crop Circle, a jazzy new place on MacDougal just south of the NYU campus. No one at the restaurant was able to adequately explain the name, since the pastry is not circular like a crop circle, but perhaps it implies how abruptly this flatbread appeared here one month ago, as if dropped by a spacecraft.
The premises is narrow, with a couple of tables set out front, and a selection of bottled and canned beverages — domestic, Italian, and Chinese — lined up next to a point-of-purchase device. Deep inside, a pair of vertical ovens said to have been imported from China are faced on top with black and white tiles. They resemble the Central Asian and northern Indian tandoor.
Indeed, Crop Circle’s guo kui look like naans pulled from tandoors, demonstrating the Silk Road influences on Chinese gastronomy. But the chefs who tend the ovens, Michael Zheng Chen and Zhuobu Zheng, were born in Guangdong. They wear brown aprons and black T-shirts, and each wields a pair of tongs to affix round balls of wheat-flour dough inside the ovens, and then pull them out when the breads are smoky and slightly blackened.
Six variations present themselves, priced at $5.75 to $7.50. I tried all six, some two or three times. The two that stood out were the spicy beef, which had black sesame seeds sprinkled across its expanse, in addition to crushed red pepper and powdered Sichuan peppercorns, with a squishy beef filling irregularly distributed inside. Another fave was vegetarian, with tangy pickled mustard greens and other vegetables inside, which impart a welcome touch of sourness to the wheaty pastry.
The other guo kui available include chicken, shrimp, and a sweet version (also vegetarian) filled with brown sugar that is the only one I wouldn’t recommend, though if you have a sweet tooth, consider it. All of these flatbreads cool quickly, and they need to be eaten hot out of the oven. Yes, a distinctive paper bag is provided that you could proudly carry home with your prize, but your enjoyment of it would be a fraction of what it would be if you had gobbled the thing the minute it was pulled from the oven. The same as pizza.
Perhaps because the chefs are from Guangdong, much of the rest of Crop Circle’s menu focuses on rice noodle rolls and steamed dumplings, which are southern Chinese dim sum. In the former category, diaphanous white noodles are stuffed with a generous quantity of bulbous and slippery shrimp; the rolls come alive when the accompanying thick soy sauce is dumped on them. The beef version is not quite as good, mostly because it lacks the fresh cilantro that brings the same dish to life at dim sum restaurants.
Dumplings are good, too, whether stuffed with shrimp, pork, and mushrooms or pork and napa cabbage. While most of the menu (including a cold red bean soup) falls in a northern or southern Chinese vein, one particular dish stands out. Tinted a garish shade of red, an apple, egg, potato, and beet salad ($4) sounds like it may not be very appealing. But it unaccountably is, sweetish and varied in its terrain, but with no relation whatsoever to the rest of the menu. Come to think of it, maybe it was left by a spacecraft.