David Chang might be one of America’s most recognized chefs not on the Food Network. Despite reaching celebrity status, Chang isn’t a sellout – and you certainly won’t find him coaching “The Worst Cooks in America.” Instead of jumping at any TV appearance he can get, Chang hosted season 1 of the insightful show “Mind of a Chef” which aired on PBS, but thankfully can be found in total on Netflix. More importantly, Chang has stayed true to his roots, even as his Momofuku Empire slowly stretches outside of New York City.
For anyone unfamiliar, David Chang grew up in northern Virginia but has since moved to New York City and is the creator/owner of the Momofuku Restaurant Group. The group started with a modest ramen shop in NYC, but now includes a dessert shop (Milk Bar), a passed plates tavern (Ma Peche), as well as the highly regarded Momofuku Ko – a Michelin two star restaurant renowned for its innovative haute cuisine and one of the hardest reservations to secure in the country.
Upon hearing Momofuku would open in D.C. during 2015, I was eager to finally sample what all the hype was about. For the most part, it did not disappoint.
I need to preface this review by saying that my friend and I had quick bites and brews at two different restaurants before coming here. I wanted to sample as many items as possible at Momofuku, but ultimately decided to take a more conservative approach knowing I would be back in the future.
The restaurant itself is very modern, but simple. The space gets a ton of natural light from its floor-to-ceiling windows during the day, and is well lit at night. The décor, well…, there isn’t much. The restaurant feels like a food lab, since all the tables are very uniformly organized with only the necessary tools resting atop each table. Some walls have graffiti-like artwork, but for the most part the ambiance is created by the buzz of people inevitably filling up the restaurant.
The menu features about 4-10 items per category, ranging from snacks, to buns, to salads, to rice/noodles and then some larger plates as well. Again, I wish I was hungrier when we arrived, so that I could have tried more dishes. But because of this, I had to choose wisely and ended up getting two of the restaurant’s signature dishes – a reasonably safe bet for a first timer.
Either way, I wasn’t leaving Momofuku without sampling the famous pork buns – a simplistic combination of puffy dough, slow cooked pork belly and quick pickled cucumber. Usually pork buns are a large sealed dumpling with coarsely minced pork inside, which then gets steamed. Chang’s rendition is served more like a taco, making it more aesthetically interesting and more fun to eat. To put it bluntly, these pork buns were unbelievable.
The pork maintains smokiness, while being melt-in-your-mouth tender – quite possibly the best piece of pork belly I’ve tasted to date. The bun itself acts as more than just a vessel to deliver the porky goodness, its pillow-y soft texture works well with the hoison sauce, slight brine and crunch from the cucumber and then the piece de résistance pork. Some of the other buns (shrimp buns or brisket buns) sounded interesting, but these signature pork buns really do live up to the hype.
The next course was the Momofuku ramen, a ramen good enough to hold the restaurant’s namesake. Before even receiving this bowl of noodles, I already knew a fair deal about this specific dish. In various episodes of The Mind of a Chef (season 1) Chang discloses the trick to his Ramen. It all starts with the broth, a chicken and mushroom based stock that gets simmered for at least 5 hours. Next is the addition of the Tare, which is a combination of other ingredients/sauces to enhance or add that umami characteristic to the broth – a common technique for ramens. Chang’s Tare includes chicken back (rendered down chicken fat), or what us Jews call schmaltz, as well as sake, mirin, soy and Benton’s bacon. Finally, the dish gets ramen-style noodles, braised pork belly, shredded pork, a generous handful of scallion, and a soft poached egg with runny yolk. Unnecessary and also unpleasant to eat was the cartoonish fish cake, and the piece of nori (seaweed).
While this was easily the best ramen I have tasted, I couldn’t help think about how it might have been better. The addition of the bacon in the Tare really overpowers the broth in an unpleasant way. The pork belly – which is the same as in the pork buns, was already slightly smoky, making the additional smoky richness of the bacon just unnecessary. Also the garnish of the sliced fish cake was just honestly disgusting. Based on its white and pink appearance, I thought it was some kind of compressed radish. As quickly as it went it my mouth, it was disposed of in my napkin – just awful.
My friend’s beef noodle soup was also very tasty. This dish used a different broth than the ramen and featured brisket, sliced roasted beef, thin soba noodles, and bok choy with copious amounts of black pepper. I really liked this soup as well, but both my friend and I agreed the Momofuku ramen was slightly tastier and a little more interesting. He thankfully was spared the fishcake in his soup however. On a side note, each soup was instantly elevated by a few squirts of the spicy ssam sauce found on every table.
All in all, Momofuku was really good. Not amazing but really good. Again, I wish I could have sampled more dishes but between being a party of two and coming straight from a happy hour, it was difficult to stomach any more food than what we ordered. The pork buns are worth coming for in and of themselves, as is the ramen but proceed with caution because it’s not for everyone. Also, with most Chang restaurants you have to wait in line or fight for a reservation. As it gets more frigid outside, your patience to do so might dwindle since the food is essentially glorified street food. Lastly, Momofuku is a welcome addition to D.C. and definitely worth checking out, but ideally try to come during off hours to avoid the crowds.