What is it about this place that it makes people work hard for their meals? First an epic walk through the backwoods of tony Westchester County for a frittata, and now I’m running down rain-slicked sidewalks of the avenues at midnight to get some fried chicken. They make your you pay for your pleasure here apparently, and the form of currency is sweat.
Here’s the story. So the sharp cleavers of David Chang’s Momofuku Empire reach far and wide throughout the animal kingdom. First the pig and its rear end was king and now the whole chicken has been brought onto the cutting board. I was clueless until properly informed, but Korean style fried chicken is all the rage in NYC this summer. Momofuku Noodle Bar serves it up in a set meal for six to eight people that is so popular, reservations are booked solid four weeks in advance. Fortunately, my friends are all food fiends that JN managed to snag last minute reservations and corral six people (eight people is just too much competition for food). The catch? It was for 11:55pm on a Friday night.
Fried chicken at midnight? No problem there. The girls and I decided to catch a movie before our chicken feast to pass time and our movie of choice was Julie and Julia. Naturally a movie about food would be a good prelude to a meal. The only problem was, we didn’t realize the movie was about two hours long and it would be ending past midnight. We were so enthralled by Amy Adam’s vulnerability and Meryl Streep’s exuberance that before we knew it, it was 12am and the there was still a duck left to truss. Noodle Bar would only keep the reservation until 12:10am, even though the rest of our party had already arrived. The chicken wasn’t going to fry if we weren’t all there. The course of action was clear. Let me publicly apologize to the couple sitting next to us whose seats we climbed past for our early exit. Girl, I’m sorry we woke you up from your sleep. Guy, I’m sorry you had to sit through a chick flick that you will probably have to sit through again because your woman fell asleep.
We were on the top floor of Loews and had to barrel down at least 7 flights of stairs. Owing to my recent dash through Midway, I lead the way and charged down the steps ahead of my three cohorts. The clock was ticking and we weren’t about to lose our reservation over a few minutes. When we burst through the exit, we headed down the avenues, where I literally had to pull Les back from trying to cross a busy 3rd Ave against the light saying unconvincingly, “It’s not worth it! It’s not worth it!”
When the light changed, the foot race against time started up once more. Again, I was leading at first, dodging pedestrians and giant garbage bags (it was trash night) while praying that we would stay upright on the wet concrete. But I was too ambitious and my poor estimation of the length of New York City avenues caught up to me and I soon tired somewhere between 2nd and 1st. Then like a well-oiled relay team, I passed the baton off to Mrs. Yam and she sprinted pass me and rounded the corner, while we shouted encouragements from a distance. “RUN! Keep running!!!”
As we neared the corner, E and I decided to kick up a burst of speed and run for the finish, with Les as our anchor in the back. The two of us were such adept runners that we completely missed the entrance and had to double back. (Actually, I forgot the address and having never been to Noodle Bar, I assumed it was the gaudy Asian looking place across the street with the crowd outside. But I should have known better because like Ssam Bar, Noodle Bar is minimalist and nondescript).
But we made it and marched through the doors with breathless joy and slight muscle fatigue (better tired legs than tired stomachs). We decided to oil our gullets with some of the famous Momofuku pork buns and a plate of Roasted Pig Tails with pickled Asian Pear. I didn’t eat the pork bun this time but the pig tails were nice and crusty with a tangy glaze. The pickled Asian pear were interesting with no hint of the sweetness that I normally expect in the fruit but went very well with the pig tails and its glaze.
Then the server brought out the condiments to build the suspense. Lettuce, shishido peppers (they tell me these are mild, but it’s a lie), radish, baby carrots, shiso leaves, basil, purple basil, mushu pancakes, and four sauces. The sauces were a ginger scallion oil (typical condiment for salt-water boiled chicken you find in Chinatown rotisseries), hoisin sauce, garlic jalapeno, and bibim sauce (similar to the stuff you squirt onto a bimbimbap). The intention was to eat the chicken Korean/Vietnamese style by wrapping the meat, lettuce, herbs and sauce in the pancake. The carrots and radish were palate cleansers that we could nibble on like Bugs Bunny.
The chicken came to our table in a giant heaping platter fried two ways: triple fried Korean style with a bibim glaze and Southern style with Old Bay seasoning. It’s roughly the equivalent of two chickens worth of food and we started our attack without hesitation, confident in our ability to devour the beast, especially after our brisk run. I started with the Southern style and speared what I thought was a thigh, though it turned out to be breast meat, a surprising moist and juicy one. The crust was a lovely brown, searing hot and crispy. Being an expert in eating Korean BBQ or Vietnamese Bo 7 Mon, I was an old hand at the wrap-your-food-in-veggies style of eating. However, I wasn’t sure how well it would adapt to fried chicken but damn, I might never want to eat fried chicken any other way again. It was so good and I loved mixing in the shiso leaves and the garlic jalapeno sauce. The crispy chicken skin, the tender meat, the fragrant herbs and sauce, and the toothiness of the mushu pancakes made for a phenomenal mouthful.
Next, I worked on the Korean style chicken which was delicious, crispy, and the sweet heat of the bibim glaze just amped up the flavors. It was so tasty and amazingly not oily or burnt at all, even though it had been fried to high heaven. This was the table’s unanimous favorite as we all found the Southern style chicken to be a tad on the salty side. That and most of the Southern style was breast meat and we all preferred the juicier, less dense limbs.
I fully expected us to clean up the platter but there were at least six or seven pieces in our take out bag when we staggered out in defeat in the middle of the night. I was slightly chagrined because not only did that chicken make us wait till midnight and become that guy in a movie theater, but it also caused us to sprint down dark, wet, city sidewalks. No fowl has ever exacted so much out of me and I’m not sure I’ll repeat the process again. I mean, I am on the top of the food chain after all and the pecking order should be pretty clear. Momofuku fried chicken, next time we meet, it will be on my terms.