Waiting in line is rarely enjoyable. I know from experience how baffling it can be for some to fathom that you’d ever choose to wait, and for something as simple as food no less. Somehow though, certain places continuously attract throngs of people to form incredibly long lines with the hope of securing a meal. There’s a soup kitchen/first world problems joke in there somewhere, but I’ll let that one lie.
I ran into this situation recently in New York. It was getting close to dinner time and, as is usually the case, I’d procrastinated and failed to procure a reservation. It’s Saturday around 5 pm, we have to make it to Governor’s Island in a few hours for a show, hey why don’t we try to get into Momofuku! Brilliant.
We arrived at quarter past to a line of more than 30 people eagerly waiting for the doors to open like so many suburban garage sale hunters. Not long after we assumed our place at the back of the line, we were approached by a German tourist and his family. “So is this place worth the wait?”, he asked, “these people certainly seem to think so”, I replied with a gesture to the patient crowd in front of us. Apparently that answer was enough for him to stick around, good man.
If you manage to pass through the doors, and if your party is small enough, you may be seated at the bar. I highly recommend this if you have any say at all, as the entertainment value of watching the chefs assemble the various dishes of the moment is worth the wait alone. We managed to catch a beautiful bowl of shrimp and grits being plated with military precision right before our eyes.
After my recent experience with shrimp and grits on our Orlando crawl, I wish I would’ve ordered it here, but I have no regrets. My choice of buns, in the shiitake and shrimp variety were more than satisfying. The former dressed simply with hoisin, scallion and shreds of cucumber was like a vegetarian Peking Duck. The latter topped a seared shrimp patty with spicy mayo, tart pickled red onion and crisp iceberg (I’m not usually a fan, but it worked here, well-played Mr. Chang).
Not to be overlooked were the pig tails which give you everything you want in a pork product. Fatty, gooey flavor packed cartilage hanging precariously off shards of crisped flesh. A humble sprinkling of scallion and chili is enough to highlight the taste and wake up the tongue. The small bowl of pickled Asian pear helped to calm the spice with a little sweetness. Little did I know how much I’d miss those soothing pears as the next two dishes whipped my little gaijin behind.
This bowl here, it’s sneaky. Do not be fooled by the word “chilled”. There’s nothing chilled about this dish except for the temperature of the noodles and maybe the nonchalant manner of the waitress as she places it in front of you knowing full well what you’re in for.
The chilled spicy noodle bowl is one of those dishes that lures you in with addicting flavors, sweet glazed cashews and savory bits of Sichuan sausage. You feel a small burn starting in the back of your throat, but it won’t stop you from greedily shoveling more of that taste into your mouth. But the burn keeps building with each bite, and not even the perfectly fresh spinach can quench the inferno that’s engulfing your insides…and yet, you return to the noodle siren as it calls you back again and again, no regrets.
There’s a saying about fighting fire with fire. I can tell you, it doesn’t apply to food, as ordering a spicy dish and following it up with an even hotter one, is ill advised. Momofuku’s rice cakes are like little Japanese gnocchi from hell. They arrive piping hot and drenched in an angry red chili sauce that will turn your tongue to ash. Ok so it’s not quite that hot, but popping a couple of these guys in your mouth while it’s still in re-entry from the atomic noodles is not a smart idea. David Chang doesn’t mess around, he’s managed to balance the flavor and spice so carefully so that you won’t be able to stop eating it no matter how much you wish you could. Pro tip, do not order these two dishes back to back, but definitely do order them.
For all the hype, Momofuku delivered a meal that met, and at times exceeded my expectations. This is simply Asian fare done right, and if you appreciate that sort of thing, a 45 min wait is no big deal. I look forward to visiting Chef Chang’s nearby hideaway, Momofuku Ko, but there are no cameras allowed, so no post for you!