Pork Bun Blitz: Who’s Got the Neighborhood’s Best?

After asking local food maven Kim Davis to suss out the neighborhood’s tastiest biscuits, porchetta, and smoked meat, we sent him to find out how a pork bun newbie stacks up against a couple of heavyweights.

pork buns - jum numNoah Fecks Pork buns at Jum Mum

There’s a pork bun bonanza in the East Village this summer, with Baohaus now located on East 14th Street, and newcomer Jum Mum joining the gua bao stakes on St Marks Place. I set out to compare these aspirants with Momofuku’s gold standard product, and ended up satisfied, sticky-fingered, and not too much lighter in the wallet.

Eddie Huang’s Baohaus built a wildly enthusiastic following for Taiwanese pork buns, in a basement space on Rivington, now home to Pok Pok Wing, before opening on 14th Street last year. Baohaus dresses its “Chairman Bao” with traditional Taiwanese garnishes – pickled mustard greens, fresh coriander, crushed peanuts and red sugar. It’s a sweetish snack, and also embraces Taiwanese tradition by preserving the jelly-like cap of fat on each slice of belly.  If you’re averse to pork fat, get the crunchy fried chicken bun instead. $3.50 apiece.

pork buns - baohuasNoah Fecks The Chairman Bao at Baohaus.

Jum Mum, a shoebox of a restaurant just east of Third Avenue, is spanking new, friendly, and very, very cheap.  The star of the show is the “Emperor” – a pork belly bun with a spicy (not very) Hoisin sauce and crisp lettuce; only $2.95 apiece, or two for $5.50. Add fries for $3, or at the same price, a trio of plump, ground-pork steamed dumplings.

The pork is soft and juicy, with a five-spice aroma, and there’s no meat jelly here. But unlike Baohaus, where the dough wrapper is smooth, Jum Mum favors a fluffier, bready casing, much closer to Chinatown style. The disadvantage is that it tends to fall apart under the weight of moist meat, making this a multi-napkin meal.

pork buns - momofukuyNoah Fecks Pork buns at Momofuku.

Much as I liked the Baohaus and Jum Mum offerings, the Momofuku bun  – which was the first to turn this humble snack into a gourmet item seven years ago – was clearly superior. The Berkshire pork belly is precisely carved and delicately marbled with fat, the dough wrapper is light but pliable, the simple additions are Hoisin sauce, scallions, and thinly sliced pickled cucumber. More compact and well-constructed than the Jum Mum bun, less overtly sweet than Baohaus’s gua bao, Momofuku just has the best ingredients.

Of course, you’ll pay a premium for them. The buns, which can’t be ordered singly, are priced at $10 a pair. What’s more, although they can be ordered as part of a sit-down meal at Momofuku Noodle Bar or Ssäm Bar, they’re no longer available at the counter of the casual Milk Bar. This means that the only way to snack on them is to place a “to go” order at the host stand of one of the restaurants – easy enough at opening time, but perhaps trickier when meal service is in full swing.

I don’t think there’s a better bun to be had in the neighborhood – or the city, for that matter – but did I miss out on one of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below.