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Bo Ssäm Doesn’t Quite Bring Home the Bacon

A couple of months ago, I received a note out of the blue from Jicama, a family friend and almost-relative who I pretty much only see at various West Coast events. He lives in Berkeley, California, but he said he would be coming to New York for a few days and wanted me to join him and his friends for a meal. The meal he had in mind wasn’t just any meal. It was the much-raved-about bo ssäm at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Bo ssäm is Korean dish, consisting of an entire pork butt (which is actually the shoulder) rubbed in sugar and salt and cooked on low heat for about six hours. At Momofuku Ssäm, parties of eight to 10 people can order them in advance for a total price of $250. Needless to say, I was in. I asked if I could bring a friend and invited Dan Dan Noodle to join me.

Ten of us arrived at the restaurant at around 5 pm, apparently the only time slot they had open for a large group. I had to take off early from work, but it’s the excitement of meals like this that reminds me why I work to begin with. The others in the group were mostly Jicama’s classmates from his not-too-distant undergraduate days at Brown. Indeed Dan Dan and I were by far the oldest, but there is nothing like a big piece of pork to unite the generations. We were seated at one of the larger tables, and the pork accompaniments soon began to arrive, including a platter of oysters. The pork would be falling off the bone, so we were to eat it with a little bit of rice, wrapped in some butter lettuce and topped with condiments. It is apparently also traditional to eat oysters alongside the meat in the little lettuce packets.

The lettuce was delivered as a lovely whole head, and it came with a variety of sauces, including two kinds of kimchi, scallion-ginder sauce and ssäm sauce, made with vinegar and fermented bean and chili pastes. When the meat arrived, our appetites had been whetted. Glistening and caramelized, the pork looked like heaven on a plate. We pulled off moist, tender chunks with tongs, assembled our little bundles and dug in. The lettuce was crisp, the sauces were vibrant, and the meat was rich and flavorful. But there was something lacking. It’s not that the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the meat was disappointing, it’s just that it became a little monotonous. I found myself wanting more texture in each bite. I wanted the charred edges and chew that you get with Korean barbecue.

With 10 ravenous people, even a huge hunk of meat goes quickly. Luckily for Dan Dan, who couldn’t reach the platter, I was somewhat aggressive in making sure we both got some meat before it was gone. For eight people, this might have been a huge meal, but for 10 it was moderate. I wasn’t starving, but I had been prepared to be much more full. All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to sample such a delectable treat with an interesting group of people, but if pressed, I think I would probably pick a barbecue place in K-Town or Flushing over the Momofuku bo ssäm for my next large-group Korean feast. I prefer to come to David Chang’s restaurants for his innovative dishes like fried shrimp tails or chili soft-shell crab with tomatillo and mole. That is unquestionably where he shines. For everything else, there are traditional cooks throughout the city that can prepare a more pleasant feast at a similarly modest price.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
Reservations for bo ssäm are here.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Zabb Elee: The Thai Food You Haven’t Tasted

Zabb Elee does not serve pad see eew, the dish made with wide rice noodles, a protein of choice and a hefty dose of oyster sauce. We found that out not long after we sat down at this cheery East Village restaurant. I should say that one of my guests found that out; after reading an article in the New York Times, I knew that Zabb Elee, which also has a location in Queens, specialized in food from Isan, a region in northeast Thailand. The food has Laotian influences, making it much different than the food serve in the ubiquitous Thai-American restaurant. That is exactly why I dragged my great uncle, Boureka and his partner Fancy Fresser there to begin with.

Boureka and Fancy Fresser were stopping in New York on their way back to the Bay Area from Israel, but they gamely agreed to take the train down to the East Village to meet Empanada Boy and me as I satisfied my craving for larb and green papaya salad. If Fancy Fresser was disappointed by the unavailability of pad see eew, she was a good sport and didn’t show it. After EB and I got our Thai and Laotian beers (Chang and Beerlao, respectively), we set about ordering. We started with the beef larb and the som tom muazuar. Larb is a minced-meat salad, made spicy and tangy with red onion, chile, lime and cilantro. While the flavor of the beef version was excellent, it looked a little more meager and boring than the images of the duck one from the Times and the opulent-looking pork and catfish options pictured on the menu. But then, I must save something for next time. Som tum is green papaya salad, and the version we got had barbecue pork and shrimp (Jewish dream), rice noodles, tomatoes and long beans. I’ve had green papaya salad many times, but this was by far the most eye-catching. The flavors were nuanced: pungent (fish sauce), bracing (lime juice, garlic) and sweet (palm sugar). The overall effect was a vibrant symphony of freshness.

Our next course, the pa ped moo korb, brought the meal back down to earth with its savory depth. This dish was composed of pork crisped on the outside and reduced inside to a nearly unrecognizable (yet somehow satisfying) chewiness. This was combined with Thai eggplant, wild ginger, basil and curry. We ordered the dish medium-spicy to accommodate all at the table, but the next time I go, I am pulling out all the spicy stops. A little bit of fire would add another amazing dimension to this already excellent combination of flavors and textures.

The people sitting at the table next to us inspired us to order our final dish because they were eating it when we walked in: a whole grilled tilapia stuffed with tamarind sauce, as well as Thai basil, onions, cilantro and other herbs. Rectangular pieces of the fish’s flesh were cut off the skeleton and fried separately into succulent, crispy morsels. The rest of the fish was crispy enough that one could pick up sections of skeleton and suck the meat and fried bits right off the bone. And, while I don’t typically eat the head itself, I am not one to let a good fish cheek go to waste. (I am Daddy Salmon’s daughter, after all.) EB and I extracted these tender bits of meat and ate them before pronouncing ourselves done with the meal. A few fish bones and some lettuce garnishes were pretty much all we had to show for it at that point.

For dessert, we decided to head back up the street to a place where Fancy Fresser had seen a sign whose bold assertion had caught her eye: “NY’s Best Egg Cream,” it read. To my surprise, this sign stood outside Gem Spa, an old-school newspaper stand at the corner of 2nd Ave. and St. Marks Place. We cautiously walked inside and inquired as to whether they actually did serve the city’s best egg cream. The guy behind the counter solemnly nodded in reply. Fancy Fresser and Boureka both got chocolate, and EB got vanilla. Those are the only two flavors. Having just made sure our plates were scraped clean at Zabb Elee, I got tastes of both of them. I am not an egg cream connoisseur, but I didn’t think these were half bad, based what I know of the tradition. Though their name might imply otherwise, egg creams are made with milk, seltzer water and chocolate syrup (or other flavoring of choice). Fancy Fresser knew enough to ask the guy at Gem Spa whether the chocolate was Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, considered an essential ingredient by egg-cream purists. Indeed it was. To my taste, the chocolate was not sufficiently chocolate-y and the vanilla was just a touch too subtle, but perhaps my palate simply wasn’t prepared to scale back to an egg cream after the riotous party that was Zabb Elee.

Zabb Elee
75 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
212.505.9533

Gem Spa
131 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003
212.995.1866

Zabb Elee on Urbanspoon

Caracas Arepa Bar: Venezuela In NYC

Curiara La Popular“What is an arepa?” So asks the rhetorical question on the website of Caracas Arepa Bar. If you click on the link you learn they are “dense, yet-spongy corn flour rounds,” “pita-like pockets” “cake-swaddled melange” and “like a Latin Sloppy Joe,” among many other descriptors. But, as I found out recently the best way to really understand what they are is to try them yourself. I met up with my friend Onion there a few weeks ago to do that.

I learned about the restaurant from Sweet Tea, one of my colleagues, who is Venezuelan-American. I asked her if there are any good Venezuelan restaurants in New York City. She didn’t know of many, she said, but there was one great one I had to try. That place was Caracas Arepa Bar, which has outposts in Manhattan’s East Village and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The Manhattan location is small and nearly always crowded, there happened to be a table for two waiting for us when we arrived. (It was also pretty dark inside, hence the poor quality of my photos.) Onion and I scanned the menu of arepas and liked the looks of too many of them to narrow it down. So we ordered, a curiara (Spanish word used in Venezuela for “dugout canoe”) filled with three varieties. The one we ordered, called La Popular, included two halves each of: La De Pabellón, with shredded beef, black beans, white salty cheese and sweet plantains; La Reina Pepiada, with chunky chicken and avocado mix salad; and La Mulata, with grilled white cheese with jalapeños, sautéed red peppers, fried sweet plantains and black beans.

TequeñosOur server convinced us we needed an appetizer too, so we ordered tequeños—little fried dough sticks filled with melted, stretchy cheese. Those came with a slightly spicy dipping sauce, and they were satisfying (if a little too bland) in the guilty way jalapeño poppers and cheese fries can be, especially when eaten between swigs from our bottles of Negra Modelo.

As it turned out, we probably didn’t need an appetizer. Our arepas arrived in a wooden serving dish that was indeed reminiscent of a dugout canoe, but this one probably would have sunk to the bottom of the river because it was so filled with food. The arepas were chewy corn pockets that made for easy finger food. The only problem with this kind of finger food is once you start eating one, you can’t put it down for fear of it falling apart completely. Instead, I end up eating everything a bit too quickly.

My favorite arepa was the beef one. The salty cheese was like the crumbly Mexican cheese cotija, and it accented the slightly sweet beef and the plantains nicely. The chicken one was my least favorite; the meat was a little dry and the avocado lacked kick to counterbalance its fatty richness. (I added some of that hot sauce I’d put on the tequeños for some extra flavor.) The cheese and jalapeño one was more interesting, having great texture, heat and sweetness.

All-in-all, three halves of an arepa amounts to plenty of food for one person and enough variety to keep even the most indecisive eaters happy. If you still don’t know what an arepa is after reading this post, I suggest you go out and try one yourself.

Caracas Arepa Bar
93 1/2 E. 7th St.
New York, NY 10009
212.529.2314

Caracas Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon