David Chang’s success in the East Village with his acclaimed Momofuku restaurants is proof that any culinary rivalry between West Coast and East Coast, New York and Los Angeles, is at best a cliché and at worst a delusion. On the evening of our visit to the Noodle Bar, several employees were wearing t-shirts proclaiming affinities for the East Bay. Chang reveres Wolfgang Puck, the legendary Spago chef famous for fusing Western technique and Eastern dishes and being among the co-creators of “California cuisine.” Indeed, Chang credits Puck as the source of the Momofuku mantra, which appears on the corporate website:
"Ethnic crossovers also occur when distinct elements meet in a single recipe. This country is, after all, a huge melting pot. Why should its cooking not illustrate the American transformation of diversity into unity?"
But let’s be clear: Chang is not about to hold hands in a circle and sing "We Are The World." In a 2008 New Yorker profile of him entitled “Chef on the Edge,” he used the word “fuck” 59 times, and I am sure with great nuance and subtlety. His new cookbook, Momofuku, has received publicity for its Murphian levels of profanity. The chef, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, explained that “There are so many more f-bombs and terrible things that happen in restaurants. It's an ugly, nasty business, the cooking world. It's hard, hot and grueling. Other books choose not to document this." This realism is praiseworthy and effective marketing based on its Amazon.com ranking of 111 the last time I checked.
Moreover, Chang is not some hippie chef serving compost or whatever it is that vegetarians eat. He is a stalwart proponent of cooking and eating pork. Fans of his original restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, prize the steamed buns stuffed with lardaceous pork bellies and the bowl of pork belly, pork shoulder, and a poached egg that happen to be accompanied by ramen noodles and broth. At Momofuku Ko, Chang serves a so-called tasting menu of several courses that can include everything from fried pork rinds, to what Ruth Reichl, writing in Gourmet, described as “triangles of pork belly . . . nestled up to an oyster on the half shell with a swirl of cabbage in a kimchi-infused consommé.”
The Noodle Bar on a Saturday night is a crazed event, since it does not accept reservations except for its special menus. Hordes of youthful East Village denizens bravely wait outside for tables, because diners inside appear to order anything the kitchen can produce. The restaurant is long and cramped, and has an open kitchen that is constantly swarmed with orders. There is no carpeting, and the wood floors and wall refuse to absorb a single conversation. Everyone thus has to shout to be heard, creating a perpetual frenzy in the dining room. The sheer volume of all this shouting inevitably leads to inter-table bonhomie and then exchanges of food followed by de rigueur expressions of gratitude, which always involve more and more beer and liquor and food. Finite gastrointestinal capacity breaks what would otherwise be a very vicious circle.
We Foxes and Graineseseses had a reservation for Chang’s fried chicken dinner. (If I am going to wait outside for a meal, it will be at Bar Pitti or Zingerman’s.) Momofuku serves two whole fried chickens, one Southern style and one Korean style. The Southern style was fried in a buttermilk batter and smothered in Old Bay seasoning, that amalgamation of celery salt, mustard, cardamom, and paprika, just to name a few ingredients, that is another oddball Baltimore tradition. The fried chicken itself was very good. After all it was chicken, deep fried by the hands of a very capable kitchen. Still, all that Old Bay, which should be used in sparing quantities because it tastes like spiced dirt, overwhelmed the chicken. On top of that, the plate of Southern style contained very little dark meat, which is far more flavorful than its dietetic counterpart.
I was more interested in the Korean version, as I love Kyochon, the large South Korean chain with a convenient western K-town location. Kyochon carves up a whole chicken into tiny pieces and then fries the pieces twice in a manner that "renders out the fat in the skin" according to the Gray Lady. Somewhere in the process, Kyochon brush the pieces with a spicy red chili sauce. Everything is made to order at Kyochon, and the wait for a chicken is a minimum of 20 minutes.
Momofuku goes one step further and fries its chicken three times. The platter of Korean fried chicken was primarily dark meat and of greater import placed right in front of me. It should be no surprise that Chang’s red chili sauce is superior to Kyochon’s, which has a medicinal aftertaste. Still I prefer Kyochon’s chicken. The chain’s central genius is its carving up the chicken, because all those little pieces with their bones have an ethereal crispiness. By comparison, Momofuku serves recognizable body parts, legs and thighs, which are larger and meatier but not susceptible to the Kyochon levels of crispiness. To be sure, Momofuku’s KFC is delicious and well worth a visit, but like a Spago hamburger, never quite as satisfying as an In-N-Out Double Double.
Momofuku accompanied the chicken with several superfluities: mu shu pancakes, spicy peppers, baby carrots, red ball radishes, shiso leaves, bibb lettuce, four sauces and a bunch of herbs. What these items had in common with fried chicken is an enduring mystery. I would expect all this accoutering at P.F. Chang’s, not at a premier New York chef’s original restaurant.
The small side order of standard kimchi warrants special mention. The cabbage had an excellent texture--sturdy enough that I had to bite into it, but not so thick that I felt like I was eating a wet notebook. But the kimchi’s red chili sauce was just outstanding. Its spicy, chili flavor revealed more and more complexities until I had to swallow it, regrettably. For all the kimchi I have sampled throughout Los Angeles’s expansive Koreatown, none has matched Momofuku’s tiny little batch.
We did manage to try Chang’s esteemed little steamed buns with pork belly and pickles. I will take the word of others that they are the ne plus ultra of steamed buns and fat. This art form and the bourgeoisie’s fixation on pork belly are lost on me. Yes, I just used the word "bourgeoisie.”
Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 First Ave.