Paunch it Up


For a country full of bacon-obsessed fatties, it’s sure taken us a long time
to embrace pork belly. This doesn’t seem right, especially considering it’s
just bacon that hasn’t been cured or smoked. Why be shy around our good
friend, fat?

It used to be that pork belly was only found on ethnic menus in New York.
Many Asian cuisines include belly dishes, often brining it and using a slow-cooking method that renders some of the fat while taking advantage of how flavorful it is.
So Go, a
Taiwanese restaurant in Chinatown, encases saucy braised pork belly in
dough. The Korean-inflected ramen bar, Momofuku, has pork
belly as an appetizer—braised in a rich pork stock with daikon
radish—and a slow-roasted version (which bastes itself in its own fat)
in pork buns and their signature ramen.

Of course, there’s another
approach to decadence: go with it. At the Filipino buffet-style restaurant,
Elvie’s Turo-Turo
deep-fried pork belly can be ordered as a side dish for five bucks. If you
like pork rinds (you’re American, right?), you’ll love Litsong Kawali,
which is basically the same thing, because Elvie’s leaves the skin attached
for maximum crunch.

At Korean barbecue restaurants, don’t just stick with brisket and
sirloin—pork belly is being delivered to the parties who know best. At
Korea town favorite, Won Jo, two thick slabs arrived
before me the other night, ornamented with a couple of carrot slices and
mushroom caps—which I ignored. After a few minutes on a very hot grill, the
belly fat was brown and dripping. Our waitress came over with a big pair of
scissors and cut the slab into chunks, which we slathered in sesame oil,
salt, and a little bean paste, before wrapping it all up in lettuce.

Aside from a waning fear of fat (thanks, Dr. Atkins, for making pasta
horrifying and putting lard back on our diets), it seems that fancy chefs,
always in search of something new and unusual, are systematically breaking
down the pork belly stigma. New American chefs tend to have an affinity for
Asian flavors, so this special ingredient is happily incorporated—but
always with a twist. At wd-50, Wylie Dufresne
pairs it with black
soybeans and turnips ($28). At Eleven Madison Park
, belly is braised and
glazed with Chinese vinegar, for $31.

The irony is that it’s not as adventurous as it sounds. The name has
undoubtedly been pork belly’s biggest hurdle all these years—if it were
called “fresh bacon,” you might have tried it by now. But anatomical
distinctions tend to gross us out, especially when the body part is one we
all have. It surely doesn’t help that it’s such a cute word, either.