Consider the pork bun. The humble dish has been on the menu of chef David Chang's perpetually buzzing New York City restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar for its entire 10 year history. In 2009, Chang wrote in the Momofuku cookbook: "It's weird to be 'famous' for something. Can you imagine being Neil Diamond and having to sing 'Cracklin' Rosie' every time you get onstage for the rest of your life? Neither can I. But if Momofuku is 'famous' for something, it's these steamed pork buns."
In 2014, the bun is still going strong, and exists in various iterations across the various Momofuku restaurants. "I've always said we wouldn't be where we are today if not for the pork bun," says Chang. "It's a dish that's synonymous with Momofuku."
"We wouldn’t be where we are today if not for the pork bun."
The components are simple: Steamed buns. Roasted pork belly. Hoisin. Quick cured cucumbers. Scallions. A squeeze of Sriracha, only if you want it. That's it. But of course, there's more to it. Co-chefs de cuisine Tony Kim and Patrick Curran explain that this dish is about consistency. A customer who ate a pork bun years ago, weeks ago, or just days ago needs to have the same experience that hooked them in the first place. "We've been doing something for 10 years that people still appreciate," says Kim. "It's a challenge to keep it up; how do I make it good not one time but the upteenth time?"
While in its 10 years of bun-making Noodle Bar has certainly gotten things down to a routine, the bun cook on the line ultimately has to find their own way of making it perfectly. "We've passed a lot of pork buns through these doors," Kim explains. "We teach [the cooks] mechanics and what the end product needs to be, and each cook develops their own style."
Eater's Greg Morabito gives some context:
Although Dave Chang did not invent the pork bun, he created a very specific and somewhat luxe version of this dish that everyone went crazy for, and his kitchens have served it the exact same way every single service since its introduction. It also inspired countless imitators across the country, even entire restaurants devoted to buns in the very specific David Chang style. Pork buns are now a part of our modern American restaurant vernacular, and it's all because of this dish.
Below, the elements of the Momofuku pork bun:
1. The Buns
The iconic dish starts with fluffy bao or buns from supplier Peking Food. "It's the best product we can find," says Curran of the buns. "You want it pillowy and soft," Kim says of the ideal bao, and Curran says Peking hits the mark: "They have great consistency. We go through a great volume with them, and we don't have issues. It's a huge thing." The buns aren't really prepped in any way by the Momofuku team beyond steaming.
2. The Pork
For the past several years, Noodle Bar has been buying pork belly for their buns from Fossil Farms, a New Jersey-based, family-run distributor of exotic and all-natural meats. While they work with a few farmers to provide their meats, their consistency and high quality keep Noodle Bar coming back for more.
The meat does not come in frozen, allowing Noodle Bar's team to control its temperature from the moment they get the pork in house. This is important because heat has a tremendous impact on the fat of the pork belly. Kim describes the way Noodle Bar likes their pork belly to taste: "It's tender and flavorful. Instead of just tasting fatty and oily, it has real flavor."
Here's how they get it that it way: When the pork belly arrives in house, it gets cured in a 50:50 mixture of salt and sugar for 24 hours. The following day, the pork belly is moved onto hotel pans and roasted in the oven for about two and a half hours at 290 degrees. And when it comes to pork belly prep, Noodle Bar doesn't let just anyone handle it. "We have prep guys who have been here eight years who do the actual cooking of the belly," says Curran. The cooks also prioritize getting a "nice ratio of fat to meat" in each slice.
3. The Sauce
Each bun is dressed with "one thin layer" of hoisin sauce. Noodle Bar buys their hoisin from S.E.A. Market (Southeast Asian Market), a distributor of Asian ingredients to New York City restaurants like Pok Pok, Nightingale 9, and many many more. Noodle Bar uses classic Lee Kum Kee brand hoisin sauce, made from ground soybeans and sweet potato.
4. The Garnish
When it comes to garnish for the pork buns, Noodle Bar keeps it simple. The buns are topped with thinly sliced raw scallion and what Curran and Kim refer to as a cured cucumber. Note that these aren't pickles. Rather, Kirby cucumbers are "quick cured" in an equal mix of sugar and salt by the case. They cure for about an hour, draining liquid in the process but retaining the seasoning.
5. The Assembly
The bun station is right at the front of the cooking line at Momofuku Noodle Bar, just beyond the pass where the expeditor manages the tickets. It's set up with two bain-maries outfitted with steamer basket. Each basket can steam 10 buns at a time (20 total), but depending on the flow, that might decrease to a rhythm of steaming eight and eight or even six and six. The steamers are used in a constant rotation, to prevent them from over-steaming. Timing is key, Kim explains: "We just make sure we don't screw up by overcooking ... I'll use a hard pasta reference, it's like we know what 'al dente' is."
The bun cook puts on a latex glove and applies some canola oil to it to prevent the bun from sticking to the glove. Next, the cook lays out 10 buns for five orders on a plating tray, all opened with the interior facing the cook.
Then hoisin is applied with the back of a tasting spoon. ("Brushes get gross," says Curran.) Kim likens the amount of hoisin on the buns to a "schmear." He adds, "it's one of those things like getting the right amount of mustard on pastrami sandwich- it's look and feel...how we can properly dress something like a bun is a cook's touch."
Next comes the scallion and cucumbers.
With chopsticks, the cook will add two slices pork belly to the bun. Learning how to use chopsticks properly is a requirement for all Noodle Bar cooks. In the case of the pork belly, chopsticks apply an even amount of pressure — other tools like tongs will tear the soft meat.
Using an offset pastry spatula, the cook transfers the buns from the tray to the plate. An order comes with two buns. Because the bun station is right at the pass, the journey from the cook's hand to the guest's table is kept to an absolute minimum. A final step: Guests can add Sriracha to the buns from the familiar squeeze bottles that seem to be on every table.