The shortage of good Chinese restaurants is a perennial concern for the eaters of Baltimore, though the scene has improved with the arrival of Peter Chang’s three restaurants in the area, including one in Canton and another in Columbia.

So I was intrigued when an email landed in my inbox with a recommendation for a hidden gem in West Baltimore. “This place looks like a lousy corporate cafe in the bottom of a bio-park building on Baltimore Street,” the tipster wrote, “but it has what I think is the best Chinese food in the city.” He was talking about Colala Grind Express, which opened in late 2022. In its short time in the city, the eatery has built a cult following for its expansive menu of Chinese street food, including dishes that are hard or even impossible to find anywhere else.

Take jianbing, for instance — a dish that’s kind of like a cross between an omelet and a crepe. The egg and batter mixture envelopes sheets of crispy fried wonton, lettuce and a sweet, spicy, savory sauce, making for an appealing combination of flavors and smooth and crunchy textures. Another example is a savory omelet, also called grilled cold noodles, which is a specialty of China’s northernmost province. It’s hard to describe: a chewy noodle wrapped in an egg. I recommend trying it extra spicy. You can handle it.

Colala Grind offers a selection of hard-to-find Chinese street food specialties like jianbing, a crepe-style dish.
Colala Grind offers a selection of hard-to-find Chinese street food specialties like jianbing, a crepe-style dish. (Ruby Yuan)

My coworker Ruby Yuan, a native of Wuhan, China, has been a regular at the under-the-radar spot since his first visit a year ago. He has tried just about everything on the menu, joking that he has put the restaurant’s fate on his back — that’s how much he wants it to stay open.

Yuan highlighted the “traditional lamb samosa” on the menu as a unique offering, though it’s one of a few food names that doesn’t quite translate: It’s nothing like the Indian pastry but more like a flaky lamb bun. He also suggested the rou ga mo, described as a Chinese version of a hamburger, but to me more closely resembled a taco. And the tofu soup he recommended, available salty or sweet, isn’t really a soup but a pudding.

“In the North, most people eat savory and can’t comprehend the existence of sweet version,” Yuan said. “In the South, most people eat sweet and can’t comprehend the existence of savory version.”

Who is responsible for bringing this vast array of foods spanning hundreds of years of Chinese geography and history to Baltimore diners? That’s chef Zhenya Li, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Chunyan Liu.

Zhenya Li and Chunyan Liu serve up hard-to-find staples of regional Chinese street fare at Colala Grind Express, a hidden gem in West Baltimore's BioPark. (Christina Tkacik / The Baltimore Banner)
Zhenya Li and Chunyan Liu serve up hard-to-find staples of regional Chinese street fare at Colala Grind Express, a hidden gem in West Baltimore's BioPark. (Christina Tkacik / The Baltimore Banner) (Christina Tkacik)

With Yuan acting as translator, Li told me that he moved to the United States in 2018 from his hometown of Tianjin, which is close to Beijing and is known for jianbing, that omelet/crepe hybrid. Like many serious fans of Chinese cuisine, he was frustrated by the limited spectrum of what typically passes for Chinese food in America — the General Tso’s chickens, the beef and broccolis, invented here to cater to Western tastes.

Open in 2021, Li’s first restaurant in Baltimore also had Colala in its name — which means “guest come happy” — and was located on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University. While he and Liu still operate a food truck near Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus, they relocated their restaurant to the University of Maryland BioPark, just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard.

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The newer spot has come with some challenges — namely, getting the word out. Li said he was only recently able to put up a small sign in the window. But one thing that’s never been in doubt is the food.

Zhenya Li and Chunyan Liu serve up hard-to-find staples of regional Chinese street fare at Colala Grind Express, a hidden gem in West Baltimore's BioPark. (Christina Tkacik / The Baltimore Banner)
A hidden gem in BioPark, Colala Express offers a menu of hard-to-find Chinese specialties (Christina Tkacik)

At Colala, everything is authentically Chinese and made from scratch, Li said, even if he’s up until 3 a.m. preparing it.

Some of my favorite dishes included the soups, like the richly flavored duck broth wonton soup, a carb-lover’s delight with thick, homemade noodles, or the braised beef soup, which comes with generous chunks of meat. On the sweeter side, I loved the sesame “gnocchi,” which wasn’t gnocchi at all but glutinous white spheres filled with black sesame paste. The red bean congee with dates (watch out for pits) was a comforting porridge I could eat any morning for breakfast.

Is it, as my tipster said, the best Chinese food in the city? While “best” is subjective, I think Chang’s Canton restaurant takes that title. Still, Colala is quick, delicious comfort food and a welcome representation of the world’s most beloved cuisine.

Try it for yourself: Li said once people taste Colala’s food, they always come back for more. That was certainly true for me. After lunch there on a Tuesday, I was placing an order for delivery by the following morning.

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner.

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