Hidden gem: Campus food truck wakes up Austin with authentic Chinese street food
As lauded as Austin’s food scene may be, variety doesn’t come easy in the Capital City. Whether due to the close-knit nature of the restaurant world or the city’s general lack of diversity, menus tend to suffer from groupthink. One year, chefs are jostling to make the best ragù while the next has them experimenting with masa.
Luckily, all that sameness is tempered by food trucks, whose low operational costs make risk-taking more palatable. Over the last few years, they have been invaluable in bringing international cuisine to the city, filling in the gaps left by the glut of gourmet burgers.
Still, it’s a surprise that it took until 2018 for someone to open a jianbing to the city. The rolled crepes — some call them Chinese burritos — are one of the world’s quintessential street foods with a history that can be traced back 2,000 years. Although ubiquitous in their home country and increasingly common in major U.S. cities, they were next to impossible to find in Austin.
While living near Fort Hood, entrepreneur Sen Mao saw the gap in the market as an opportunity for a new business. In May, he debuted Insennity in the University Co-op Food Court at 411 W. 23rd St., originally offering noodles and dumplings, but soon focusing on the crepes as he figured out the limits of his one-man operation (as is tradition, everything is cooked to order).
Mao makes four varieties of jiangbing on a tiny stove. The vegetarian version is the most traditional, flecked with sesame seeds and green onion and rolled with crunchy wonton crackers. For a little more, guests can get them filled with crisp bacon or turkey ham.
The crepes themselves are a delight, subtly vegetal and nutty throughout that are heightened by the smoke and fat of the meats. But the Insennity sauce really kicks things up. On a recent visit, Mao didn’t reveal what makes the thick, hoisin-colored concoction so special — only saying it was a proprietary blend of five different sauces — but it hits the entire tongue at once, revealing salty, tangy, sweet, spicy, and umami flavors with every bite.
It’s equally impressive as a dip for tempura shrimp, the sole side. Also available in the jianping, the shrimp are scored and lengthened into a stick before being fried in an airy batter and sprinkled with dried herbs. One could eat several orders of them without ever feeling weighed down.
It may be true that Austin has too many cooks in the kitchen, but Insennity is proof that there’s always room for one more — as long as they can do one thing spectacularly well.