Pork belly buns are almost a delicacy here, but in Asia, gua bao are the equivalent of hamburgers — cheap, easy to make, and unequivocally delicious.
I ate my fill of the street-food snack in Taiwan over the summer, and I was shocked at how large they are. The buns were the sizes of small coin wallets, and the juicy pork belly sat marinating in brine alongside pickled vegetables, a tub of hoisin sauce, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. Since I got back home, I’ve been scouring the city for the best gua baos.
Here are my five favorites:
Eddie Huang’s BaoHaus is a great drunk-food establishment near Union Square. Although the portions are a bit small, BaoHaus has become synonymous with the gua bao obsession. What you’re looking for is the Chairman Bao: a gua bao stuffed with pork, crushed peanuts, cilantro, pickled mustard relish, and Taiwanese red sugar. 238 East 14th Street, 646-669-8889
4. Jum Mum
Jum Mum is a relatively new steamed-bun contender. Owned by the same people who manage Spot Dessert Bar a few doors down, Jum Mum gives you three large, generously filled buns for $6. Look for the Emperor Bun filled with pork belly, a couple pieces of shredded lettuce, and cilantro paired with a tangy hoisin sauce. 5 St. Marks Place, 212 673-6745
3. Rai Rai Ken
Rai Rai Ken might be known for its affordable ramen, but the gua bao is most definitely a standout. First of all, it’s $7.50 for two carefully assembled beauties: Your standard steamed bun, a nicely cooked pork belly, some crunchy cucumbers, lettuce, and mayonnaise. They also throw in a side of chile sauce for those craving an extra kick. 218 East 10th Street, 212-477-7030
Coming in at a close second is Ippudo for its Hirata Buns. The bun itself is freshly steamed so what you get is a thick, warm rice pillow filled with juicy pork belly, a special sauce (a great mix of tangy and spicy), iceberg lettuce, and mayonnaise. A bit pricey at $9 for two, but so worth it. 65 Fourth Avenue, 212-388-0088
Throughout the years, Momofuku’s pork buns have garnered a cult following of their own. The meat melts when it touches your mouth, and they are slathered with hoisin sauce, pickled cucumbers, and a nice sprinkling of scallions. The buns are finished off with a touch of Sriracha. 171 First Avenue, 212-777-7773
Fun Buns NYC
This newish food truck from the creators of Bian Dang and the Taiwanese staff serves pork belly buns with soy sauce, garlic, star anise, and cilantro. The best deal is the $10 combo, which comes with three buns of your choice.
Don’t see your favorite buns? Tell us about them in the comments!