Nice buns: Toronto’s best takes on a popular steamed Asian snack
By Christine Peddie
Momofuku's pork buns
When David Chang opened his new Momofuku restaurants in late September, a frenzy ensued. The media went crazy, and the lineups were so large that Chang himself tweeted out pictures of crowds waiting outside on the street.
One reason for that was, undoubtedly, because Torontonians could finally sample Momofuku’s famous pork bun on home soil. Chang’s pork buns have had a huge foodie following since he launched them back in 2004 at his New York restaurants. He’s credited with revolutionizing a centuries-old snack and making it trendy. The effect was such that Momofuku-esque pork buns started popping up on restaurant menus all over — including here in Toronto, where we have a major fondness for inexpensive tasty snack foods. And now that we can get Momofuku’s original version ($10 for two) on University Avenue, the stage is set for a battle of the buns.
Traditionally, steamed pork buns are filled with char siu, or barbecued pork. To make it, pork is marinated in a mixture that can include hoisin, spices, soy sauce, honey and sherry or cooking wine. It’s roasted until crisp, caramelized and shiny. The pork is then wrapped in a yeast-raised dough called mantou. Anyone who has ever enjoyed dim sum has probably encountered a steamed bun in its pre-Momofuku guise.
Then came David Chang. Did he create something entirely unique? No. Did he serve up revolution on a plate? No. What he did was offer up a snack that
was cheap, filling and, most importantly, beguilingly flavourful and addictive. As he writes in the Momofuku cookbook, his pork buns were simply his take on “a pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating.”
As a base for his bao, Chang uses traditional steamed mantou, served open-faced. He uses fatty pork belly, which he brines for at least six hours in a mixture of salt and sugar. The pork is then roasted for close to three hours. The burnished, crackling meat is garnished with hoisin, quick pickles, scallions and sriracha. The combination is genius. And it’s damn tasty.
Still, Chang is far from alone in serving up pork buns in this city. In fact, he’s entering a market that’s positively crowded with the things. Which is good news for anyone in need of a bao fix but averse to throwing themselves into the initial hysteria surrounding the arrival of Momofuku.
For traditionalists, Chinatown is the best place head for. The decor at Rol San is bare-bones, but its dim sum is worth going back for. Here, you get classic pork buns ($2.68) — no condiments, no garnish. Each order brings a trio of marshmallowy orbs hiding a core of sweet, saucy pork.
If you demand more elegance, Lai Wah Heen is your best bet. There, master dim sum chef Terrence Chan uses a “time-tested traditional” recipe for his dough ($4.50 for three) with a unique and tender honey-glazed whole pork loin filling.
For a more Momofuku-esque experience, Banh Mi Boys offers five-spice pork belly bao ($3.49). The shop’s bread and butter are the sandwiches, but the five bao options also deserve attention. There are bao filled with panko-crusted tofu, fried chicken, pulled pork, braised beef cheek and pork belly. The top-selling belly is braised in its own juices and seasoned with hoisin and Luck sauces. A hefty, half-inch slice of meat adorns each bun and sports lightly pickled yellow radishes, carrots and fresh cilantro.
Hipsters flock to The County General for inspired buns with Cumbrae’s pork and creative toppings ($12 for three). Milk dough is made daily and comes with lightly smoked Yorkshire pork belly. For its spin on what chef Garth Legree calls “the most copied dish of the year,” The County General serves its buns three ways. On one, pork is slathered in espresso barbecue sauce and topped with green apple slaw. On another, there’s cilantro-flecked avocado chutney. The third bun changes seasonally and might include house-made kimchi or heirloom tomatoes from Vicki’s Veggies.
Steamed buns ($5 each) feature on 416 Snack Bar’s acclaimed menu of handheld treats. According to owner Adrian Ravinsky, the steamed milk bun recipe was tweaked from Momofuku’s own. Pork belly is first treated to a couple of days of five-spice brining. Then, it’s braised in vegetable stock for close to three hours. Seared to order, the meat is garnished with hoisin, house-pickled daikon and carrot, celery, watercress and sushi ginger. Though the pork bun is the bar’s most popular, Ravinsky’s favourite is the more surprising fish version: a steamed bun bursting with crunchy smoked salmon skin. Brought in from Kristapsons, the skin is scraped and baked until dry. It’s deep-fried to order and kissed with spicy mayo and the usual-suspect garnishes.
For a really unconventional bao, try the pickerel taco ($13) at Bannock, which is really a steamed bun by another name. Maple syrup, chili and tamarind are used to glaze local pickerel that hides beneath a tangy slaw of cucumber and apples. And at The Food Dudes food truck, where everything is made from scratch, veal meatball is served on a basil-infused steamed bun ($8).
Whether Chang-inspired or not, high or lowbrow, Toronto has a hearty enough number of steamed buns to satisfy. The question is, can the city make room for more?