I had heard of the Momofuku restaurants many times before I finally ate at one last week. I really don’t know why. I suspect that they were, for a time, quite trendy, because now when I hear snobby New Yorkers mention them it’s usually with a dismissive snicker, as if they’re somehow not cool now because they were too cool for too long or something.
Whatever. Because I don’t pay much attention one way or the other, I’m not sure that’s the case. My only standard for coolness in eateries is delicious food.
The following sandwich is that, so I will hereby deem the Momofuku Milk Bar incredibly cool. Just a very hip place to hang out if you’re someone that appreciates pork. And a big hat tip to fellow pork enthusiast Alex Belth for dragging me there, and for filling me in with all sorts of inside knowledge about the pork.
The sandwich: Pork buns from Momofuku Milk Bar, 2nd Ave. and 13th St. in Manhattan. I’m told the pork buns are also available in at least one of the other Momofuku restaurants, which are mostly in the same neighborhood.
The construction: Pork belly on a steamed bun with scallions, pickles and hoisin sauce. I added sriracha.
Important background information: These are nothing like the pork buns I had in China, though both are good. Those looked more like dinner rolls, only they had delicious pork stuffed inside. I was sort of expecting that when I heard the term “pork bun” bandied about so often, but, like I said, it worked out OK.
Apropos of almost nothing, in the course of a month in China I learned how to say all of six things in Mandarin Chinese. One of them was roujiamo, or meat sandwich — knowledge that obviously came in handy with street vendors, but took part in a silly exchange with a young Chinese woman in a bar. She smiled at me so I figured I’d try my hand at flirting, and it went something like this (only, you know, in Chinese):
Me: “Hello. I am Ted.”
Her: (Something in Chinese I can’t understand.)
Me: “I am a student.”
Her: (Smiles, more Chinese.)
Me: “Internet cafe.”
Her: (Clear international look of confusion.)
Me: “Meat sandwich.”
Her: (Blank stare.)
Me: “Thank you.”
What it looks like:
How it tastes: Oh, lordy.
You stand up to eat at the Milk Bar, and I had to brace myself on the table after taking a bite out of the first one. Holy hell, that’s good.
And for the second straight week, the amazing sandwich was highlighted by amazing pork. This time it the pork didn’t even need to be breaded and fried — just roasted, and without a lot of seasonings either. I’ve never tasted pork like this before — it was so fatty and tender that in terms of texture it almost seemed like duck. But then it was bursting with amazing pork flavor.
Belth tells me that the pork comes from special, extra-fatty super-pigs bred from other famous amazing pork pigs. Apparently the swine are so coddled that they can distinguish between organic and non-organic feed and refuse to eat the latter. I love that: stubborn, uppity pigs. And I get the last laugh!
The rest of the sandwich is good too: The bun is spongy, sweet and moist, but strong enough to hold the ingredients and preserve sandwich integrity. The pickles aren’t overwhelmingly pickly — more like slightly tangy cucumbers, really. But that’s fine. They add a note of flavor and don’t take away from the pork, which is clearly the prize here.
The hoisin added some sweet flavor and a little additional moisture, though, honestly, I think I could have eaten the pieces of pork on their own and they would have been plenty moist. The scallions were only barely noticeable, but they brought a little more pungency and depth to the whole thing. I went light on the sriracha — especially on my second bun — because I didn’t want it to overwhelm the pork, so it served mostly to make the tastes linger in my mouth a little longer, which was welcome.
But again, it’s all about the pork. I need to meet some of these pigs. I want to go pet them and coddle them myself and show them how much I appreciate what they’ve done for me. Outstanding.
What it’s worth: If you can convince Belth to buy — and he’s a pretty obliging dude — they’ll run you only the cost of subway fare. Otherwise, they’re $9 for an order of two, but you’ll probably want at least three for a meal. Not the world’s cheapest sandwich, but you can tell you’re paying for quality.
How it rates: 95 out of 100. Inner circle Hall of Fame sandwich.