Oh, fancy pork buns. How did you do it? Getting us to swoon over slabs of porcine goodness while paying ridiculous markups for a product that can be purchased so cheaply in Chinatown, that is. The exact reason remains a mystery, though the cult of Momofuku is undeniable. And while the food fad might have reached an apogee two years ago, the trend remains strong. Just recently, Eddie Huang opened a second outpost of Baohaus, his shop devoted to Taiwanese-style gua bao. While Chang’s and Huang’s pork buns feature different toppings, at their core they are quite similar: fatty pork, fluffy bun, Asian flavors. Which means one thing: We had to prepare for a Battle of the Bougie Pork Belly Buns.
We began our quest at Momofuku Noodle Bar, and ordered the classic pork buns, which run two for $10. The buns come slathered with hoisin sauce and quick-pickled cukes, plus a sprinkling of minced scallions. The buns are notably soft and squishy but sturdy enough to stand up to the slices of pork. Pork belly, obviously a fatty cut of meat, can be tricky, and it’s not uncommon to end up with gobfuls of straight fat. The meat here had a good balance of flesh and fat. Although we preferred the restaurant’s older version in which the pork took on much more of a roasted character, this bun proved that, yes, much of Momofuku’s hype is still well-deserved.
We then strolled a few blocks up to 14th Street and popped into Baohaus 2, which occupies a narrow storefront with an open kitchen, also visible from the street. Here, the buns cost $4 apiece, so a good 20 percent cheaper than Momofuku’s, plus you can mix and match, which is something we always appreciate. Sticking with piggy delights, we opted for the classic Chairman Bao, which comes with pork belly, “haus relish,” chopped cilantro, and crushed peanuts. Size-wise, the bun is about the same as Momofuku’s, though the flavorings used for the pork here are slightly sweeter and the nuts add a nice textural crunch. Our slab of pork belly, however, was all fat, lording over a tiny nub of cooked meat hidden at the bottom of the bun. The flavorings were more complex than at Momofuku, but, truthfully, we would have liked a bit more meat in our mouthfuls.
So which bun wins?
This was a tough one, but we’re going to give the win to Momofuku. Even though it was more expensive and somewhat less original than the selection of quirkily flavored baos at Baohaus, the meat was far better and not simply a lump of cooked pearly fat. Succulent piggy flavor still came through in each bite, which is key when it comes to a pork bun. Though of, course, even a fatty pork bun is better than no pork bun at all.