I have a great deal of admiration for David Chang. He is taking Korean flavors and making it approachable for the American palate. His Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, takes a fresh look at new American cuisine, culture, and sourcing. The Momofuku brand becomes a platform for inventive chefs like Christina Tosi of Milkbar. On the whole, his restaurants and food are wonderful.
Hands down, Momofuku's fried chicken is amazing. The couple sitting next to us were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They spent the entire meal murmuring to each other how good it was. The Smoked Trout Dip? Oh so good! If you grew up in England you already know how tasty smoked trout is on crispy toast. Why don't I have photos of the smoke trout dip? Simple. It was gone before I could even reach for my camera. It is that good.
Our table nearly ordered another smoked trout but we were eagerly awaiting the signature dish. What dish am I referring to? I'm talking about Má Pêche's 13 dollar pork belly bun. Expensive even by New York standards.
I love pork belly or beef buns. I would say the gold standard would be the ones found in Taiwan's ubiquitous night markets. (Go visit Lan Jia Guao Bao in Taipei) The Taiwanese layer textures and flavors, peanut powder, pickled mustard greens, and tender tender beef with just a little bit of sauce. It's an amazing balance of salty, sweet, savory and crunch - all in a package that doesn't fall apart.
That being said, we are in NY. Our expectations should be tempered.
Momofuku's interpretation is simple: Two small slices of pork belly dressed with pickled cucumber, hoisin, and scallions. If the dish is that simple, it better be good.
What makes a good bun or bao? The steamed bun needs to be spongy but elastic enough to hold sauce, pickles, and the protein. The protein, in this case, the pork needs to be tender enough so that, when encased in the steam bun, it doesn't slip out when you bite it. If you are going to include the pork skin on top, it better be tender or super crispy like chicharrón.
The steamed bun is small relative to the condiments and protein. Sure, visually, a smaller bun makes the pork belly look bigger. From a practical standpoint, you can't hold the bao without the meat slipping out, especially when you see so much hoisin sauce slathered on it. The pickles were fine but didn't have enough acid to balance out the sweetness of the hoisin sauce. The pork belly wasn't tender. A diner doesn't want to fight the gristle that holds the different layers of pork belly together. The skin of the pork belly wasn't crisp nor did it contribute anything other than an oily aftertaste. But the worse part? The pork didn't look or taste fresh!
Ok, now some of you who live in Asia and the EU might say it is because American pork uses the feed additive ractopamine. For our American readers, ractopamine is used by US farmers to promote lean meat. It is arguable whether the use of ractopamine impacts the flavor of pork. However, US pork does taste distinctly different from pork in the EU and Asia. For the purposes of this conversation, let's ignore ractopamine issue.
Simply put: fresh pork belly, when cooked and served should look creamy white, at worse slightly grey even when brined.
Perhaps the team was having an off day. Perhaps things are getting lax due to the impending closure. Regardless of the reason, it spoiled what would have been a perfectly good meal.
Kent is a management consultant who has spent years traveling for work. His refuge is looking for the perfect meal so that he can reproduce it at home with his wife and friends.