A year ago, I knew little about gua bao, the Taiwanese steamed clamshell buns stuffed with savory meat. When in New York my mind would be set on their distant cousin, the rou jia mo found at Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing, the split-open pan bread with yawning maw stuffed with an explosive mixture of lamb, cumin and jalapeños. Then came another New York visit and the ritual of treating my daughter to a trendy, but always ethnic, restaurant meal as a reward for use of her apartment. This time it brought us to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. At Momofuku you have to try the "pork buns" the buzz went, and so we did.
The pork buns you get at Momofuku Ssäm Bar are not your father's pork buns and maybe even not your father's gua bao. They were envisioned by one David Chang, a Korean-American who has parlayed a large cooking talent, hype, and a sense of location, location, location into a mini-Momofuku empire, with his signature pork buns as a touchstone at each location. Chang's venues charge a momofukin' fortune (sorry, couldn't resist) for their offerings, and his pork buns have been taken note of both by imitators with dollar signs in their eyes and by other cooks who feel challenged to make something better or more authentically Taiwanese. The spawn of Momofuku's pork buns dot the haute Asian Fusion landscape; collectively, they involve a more or less traditional folded-over steamed bun, pork belly of some provenance. and various approaches to spicing (generally including sweetness). I've had occasion to sample three notable successors as well as Chang's original, and here are my reflections.
From the start, David Chang's pork bun is an odd duck. Or pig. Or both. A couple of slabs of slow-cooked pork belly, along with scallions and pickled cucumber are placed in a bun which has been slathered with hoisin (haixian) sauce. The intent was apparently to combine the trendy excess of pork belly (the culinary gift that keeps on giving) with the luxe experience of eating Peking Duck. I'm not opposed to sweetening the meat, being married to a Shanghainese of some coooking skill, but I found the use of hoisin sauce for this purpose a bit jarring. Just what the hell was I eating? Not only was this gustatory head-fake a bit uncalled for, it was also dearly bought. At $9.00 for two smallish buns it fell off the value scale, according to my felicific calculus. (But I'll leave the ranting about Momofuku's prices to others.)
One who seems challenged to one-up rather than imitate David Chang is Eddie Huang, the Taiwanese-American chef and former lawyer who founded Baohaus New York: Fresh off the Boat. Arguably in the same talen league and even brasher than Chang, Huang has also just opened the more ambitious Xiao Ye, the second outpost in what may be his own mini-empire (the Momofuku for the rest of us?) Huang skyrocketed to fame with his gua bao selections (cited as Best Bun in New York by New York Magazine). His take on the pork belly gua bao, The "Chaiman Bao," became his most popular item and incidentally launched a transcontinental controversy which is yet to be resolved. Eddie's Chairman Bao uses a generous hunk of pork belly (mine seemed leaner than Momofuku's) which has been "red cooked" in what I recognized as traditional Shanghainese style, made Taiwanese by being covered with with crushed peanuts and red sugar. Pickled mustard greens and cilantro add to the complexity. Not only did I appreciate the fuller symphony of flavors and textures, I found Baohaus' bao a better value, $4.00 for a palpably more generous portion of leaner meat.
A few months after Eddie Huang's baos, including the Chairman Bao, propelled him to casual food stardom, a food truck called "The Chairman Bao Truck" began serving gua bao on the streets of San Francisco. The Chairman Bao Truck was a concept which sprung full-blown from the head of a company called Mobi Munch (who later claimed to never have heard of Eddie Huang and his Chairman Bao). According to SF Weekly, Mobi Munch was founded "to offer turnkey infrastructure and development planning to the growing wave of gourmet food trucks." The founders, veterans of the chain restaurant industry, tried unsuccessfully to interest several local gourmet street food vendors in their service, then came up with the Chairman Bao Truck and populated it with a chef-operator named Eric Rudd (from Minneapolis, but with some local cooking experience). As might be expected, the mercurial Eddie Huang went ballistic over the use of the Chairman Bao name. I've shared his anger, but am trying not to aim it at the hapless operator, who is caught in the middle. The affair will end in a sporting, if not completely amicable way with a bun-off between the two enterprises in September in San Francisco.
I caught up with the Chairman Bao Truck's pork bun last Friday night at Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center. It was the cheapest (at $2.95) but also the smallest of nouveau gua baos that I'd tried to the moment. It contained grilled pork belly, pickled daikon and pickled sweet onions. It was more discreetly spiced (NO hoisin sauce) and, though texturally monotonous, a well-behaved disciple of Momofuku's pork buns, though not as interesting or as satisfying as the Baohaus version. On a previous visit, when they had no pork buns on offer I tried the meatball and the tofu buns, and I'd actually recommend the tofu bun of the three.
The last of my four samples, encountered barely two hours ago, came from the opening lunch service of Spice Kit, a new San Francisco Financial District venture which looks like a winner. Fred Tang's gua baos are truly on the tiny side (indeed, they are listed on the menu as sides) and are $2.95 for one or two for $5.00. But the mighty mites, so round, so firm, so fully packed with grilled pork belly deserve to be upgraded in size or quantities to mains (which, for the record, includes Banh Mi, Ssam and salada). What hoisin sauce was present (and the menu claims it was there) kept a discreet distance from my palate, letting the flavor of pickled cucumber and scallions come through, and the firmer texture of the grilled (rather than slow-cooked) pork belly made for a nice contrast to the steamed buns. I made a meal out of my two mini-buns by adding an order of not particularly memorable ginger slaw and amazing house-made lotus chips. Who knew lotus root could taste so good?
Overall, as is probably is clear from the above comments, I prefer the gua bao from Baohaus NY for its flavors, textures, value and attitude. But I also have to give a nod to the porky munchies at Spice Kit, certainly my surprise of the week so far, and I wouldn't toss the pork buns from Momofuku or The Chairman Bao Truck into the compost barrel if they were handed to me. But to tell the truth, if you laid out all four next to one of Lao Liang's rou jia mos at the Golden Mall, hmmm......
Gary Soup is a blogger, tweeter and sometimes poster to foodie web sites, usually blathering about Chinese food. He is a retired transport planner with an abiding interest in all aspects of Chinese food and its place in the world. He has twice been married to Shanghainese women who happened to be good cooks and consequently is well-grounded in Shanghainese "jia chang" cuisine. He is based in San Francisco, but spends as much time as he can in Shanghai and New York and can sometimes be seen prowling the streets of Montreal. He is the author of two articles on food in the guidebook "Urbanatomy: Shanghai 2009" and has been a guest blogger for the Asian Art Museum on the food of Shanghai. He currently maintains two Blogger blogs, and posts a lot to flickr. Some earlier online efforts of Mr. Soup drift about the World Wide Web as cyberspace junk.