Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 First Avenue, New York 10003

 

It doesn't look much from the outside. A plain glass frontage, with a paper menu tacked up on the door. Only the relative spruceness of the building, in a stretch of flyblown ethnic restaurants and head shops, gives a clue that we have reached our destination – one of New York's foodie places of pilgrimage, the legendary Momofuku Noodle Bar. Outside, a British tourist is taking a photo of the menu on her phone. Oh, hang on, it's me. Sorry, I seem to have got a bit overexcited.

Last time I was in Manhattan's East Village, more than a decade ago, this was a scuzzy part of town – it has since been gentrified, and is now just seedy – and Momofuku's inspirational owner, David Chang, was still on a pilgrimage of his own, cooking his way around Tokyo.

Chang went on to open his New York version of a ramen bar, Momofuku, in 2004, and inadvertently started a revolution. With no reservations, no fancy manners, and no respect for purist convention, Momofuku was ecumenical in its approach, mashing up influences from Japan, Korea, China and the US, and creating in the process one legendary dish – the iconic pork bun. Two soft, steamed buns, holding a thick slice of pork belly, and finished with hoisin sauce, spring onion and cucumber, it became a sensation. Only in America, and more specifically, only in the overheated, neophiliac climate of New York dining, would customers queue patiently outside the hot new place for the latest must-eat dish. Or so we used to think. Hollow laugh.

Possibly the only empire built on a bun, the Chang dynasty grew to include three more restaurants in New York, plus a bestselling cookbook, and a bakery chain, the Momofuku Milk Bar, serving crazy-sounding specialities like crack pie and compost cookies. With new branches in Sydney and Toronto, the pork bun has become the sandwich that ate the world.

So I thought it was time to go back to where it all began, the original noodle bar, before my fellow critics discovered I'd never eaten a Momofuku pork bun and had me blackballed, or barbecued. Arriving for lunch a mere eight years after the early-adopters, I felt genuinely excited. A feeling which instantly evaporated on being politely, but firmly, directed to wait for my guest on the pavement outside, in the middle of a July heatwave. Momofuku doesn't seat incomplete parties, even ones who have opted to lunch at the fashionably early hour of noon. I don't mind queuing outside a full restaurant, but queuing outside a half-empty one? Way to harshen the buzz.

Just before the soles of my shoes melted, my guest arrived, and we were in. I have a vague memory of a woody, canteenish room, with a counter, and some shared refectory tables, and Hank Williams honky-tonking on the sound system – all rather laid-back and surprisingly studenty. But it's all a bit of a blur, because I was focusing so hard on what I was eating. There were the pork buns, of course; the pork served in huge slabs, the buns light, sweet and pillowy – plus a variation on the classic New Orleans po'boy: deep-fried breaded oysters, served in the same steamed Chinese buns, with Old Bay spiced mayonnaise and pickles.

Then we had noodles – of course we had noodles – the classic Momofuku ramen, based on a superb broth, umami-rich, subtle and deep, crammed with good things – pork shoulder, which fell apart at the touch of the fork, chopped scallions and pink-swirled fishcakes, and a heap of noodles, topped with a single poached egg, which broke open to spill its golden yolk into the broth. I'm looking at the photos now on my phone, and drooling at the memory. A second noodle dish, from the daily specials, partnered cold soba noodles with warm, crisp-skinned smoked chicken, and nubs of grilled sweet corn, a wholly successful fusion of Korea and the Deep South.

That fusion was being explored by a large party at the next table, who were tucking into Momofuku's fried chicken feast, two whole chickens, jointed and served two ways; fried Southern-style, in buttermilk batter, and Korean-style, triple-fried and glazed. It looked fantastic. Apart from the chicken, which costs $100 and has to be pre-ordered, nothing on the menu is more than $16 – we really did eat exceptionally well for not very much money.

Tempting though the dessert options were – rosemary ice-cream or strawberry lemon cake truffles – we went round the corner for dessert, to the nearby branch of Milk Bar, where we took photos of ourselves eating cereal milk ice-cream, which had the flavour of milk left at the bottom of the cornflakes bowl, and crack pie, a treacle tart so sweet it left the heart hammering, even as you jonesed for the next hit.

In both places, the staff operate with the slightly glazed efficiency of funfair workers who have become immune to the excitement of their customers. But I guess if people are going to take photos of their food on camera-phones – no names, no pack-drill – they deserve to be treated like tourists.

Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 First Avenue, New York 10003

Around £20 a head before wine and service

Food ****
Ambiance ***
Service ****

Side orders: Use your noodles

Tonkotsu

This new big star in Soho serves delectable ramen – the house speciality is a rich, sea-salt-based pork stock with thin noodles topped with slices of pork belly, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts and spring onions (£11).

63 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7437 0071)

Vnam Café

Small Vietnamese street-food outlet serving pho – the beef rice noodle version is scented with cinnamon, coriander and star anise.

40 Oldham Road, Manchester (0161 205 2700)

Koya

Deservedly popular Japanese udon noodle restaurant – try the smoked mackerel and green leaves in broth (£10.50).

49 Frith Street, London W1 (020-7434 4463)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee