137 Rivington St, LES, 646-684-3835
Rating: 3 out of 5 L’s
Just as Kobe and Lebron and every other phenom who enters the NBA has to contend with the legacy of Michael Jordan, so does every bun that enters the New York market have to contend with the legacy of the Momofuku pork bun. Consider Eddie Huang, the new challenger to the Chang throne. His approach is the same: open, Taiwanese-style gua bao filled with quality sustainable meats. The result? Let’s just say Huang is no Harold Miner (the dismal NBA failure who, ironically, was given the name “Baby Jordan” early in his career).
The little restaurant is a humble affair: walk down off Rivington Street into a sparsely decorated room with Golden Era hip-hop blaring on the stereo, where kids taking a break from the perpetual LES booze cruise sit on backless stools scarfing down quick meals. Blasé young women work the kitchen and counter, providing service with a shrug.
A sign states “We are not fast food,” but the food comes out of the kitchen awfully fast, not that it has an effect on its quality. Don’t expect the precise, clean flavors of the Momofuku bun; here the gua bao are wild and a little bit messy, echoing Huang’s brash personality (read his irreverent and oft-updated blog Fresh Off the Boat for examples of said brashness).
His signature dish is the Haus Bao. Inside the soft steamed bun you’ll find a salty, savory hunk of hanger steak from Niman Ranch, sweetened with house relish and Taiwanese red sugar. Chopped peanuts give it a bit of crunch while cilantro provides a refreshing finish. For an extra $2.30, you can get the same thing with Wagyu skirt steak. I often find that when Wagyu beef is converted from its natural, beautifully marbled form into street food like hamburgers and hot dogs it loses its number one asset: its stunning texture. There is no exception here. Save your cash&emdash;the original Haus Bao is good enough.
The Chairman Bao replaces steak with a monstrous slab of Berkshire pork belly that’s almost too big for the bun. It is fatty and unwieldy and delicious, the subtle flavor of the pork really allowing the other ingredients to come through. Perhaps the most inventive and addictive thing on the menu are the sweet bao fries. They look like something out of a Taiwanese county fair, fried pieces of bao with the soft consistency of warm churros drizzled with a sweet and slightly nutty black sesame sauce. It’s something crazy that only Eddie Huang could have come up with, making you glad that there is room enough in this city for multiple bao masters.