Momofuku means “lucky peach” in Japanese. It’s also the name of the man who invented instant ramen. But today, Momofuku is more widely recognized as the award-winning restaurant in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Sydney; Toronto; and now Las Vegas. Founder and chef David Chang has revolutionized dining with his smart use of star Asian ingredients such as shiso, ginger and hoisin, coupled with bold and subtle flavors, Chang creates edible memories by combining the familiar and the unfamiliar, one delicious bite after another. As for the stimulating phonetics of the name. Chang says it doesn’t hurt that it sounds like an American curse word. It matches his edgy, slightly neurotic obsession toward mastering flavor, from his optimized ramen to his devotion to well-seasoned pork.
Chang describes food in musical terms. In his “Unified Theory of Deliciousness” article in Wired he writes, “Different cultures may use different media to express those base patterns—with different ingredients, for instance, depending on what’s available. But they are, at heart, doing the exact same thing. They are fundamentally playing the same music. And if you can recognize that music, you’ll blow people’s minds with a paradox they can taste: the new and the familiar woven together in a strange loop.”
Meet the Band
Chang has been honored with awards from Food & Wine (Best New Chef, 2006), Bon Appétit (Chef of the Year, 2007) and GQ (Chef of the Year, 2007) magazines, was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2010, and has taken home five James Beard awards. But he didn’t have the easiest start. “When we first opened Momofuku Noodle Bar [in 2004], we had no idea what we were doing,” Chang says. “The restaurant was failing, and it’s only when we stopped caring about making dishes that you would find at a traditional noodle bar, and [began] cooking whatever we wanted, that things started to fall into place. We always say that what got us here won’t get us there.”
Chang’s idea of a new menu and restaurant is to incorporate nods to dishes that have been in the Momofuku DNA for a while. “But also we really want to create something new, tailored to the chef running the kitchen, the location and that period in time. At the end of the day, we really just try to serve delicious food.”
Taiwanese-born chef Michael Chen runs Momofuku Las Vegas. Raised in San Francisco, he describes his background as a cultural melting pot, which is seemingly synonymous with Momofuku’s culture and spirit. “One of the reasons Momofuku really appealed to me is that, similar to my background, they bring together styles, techniques and flavors from all over with the single goal of making delicious food,” Chen says.
Food that teases the taste buds and goes right to the heart typically speaks more than one language. And that’s what you can expect at Momofuku. Take, for example, the idea that many Asian cuisines pair steamed bread with fatty meat and cool crunch. Chang knew Americans adore BLTs, so the Momofuku Pork Belly Bun was born at his first restaurant and became a smashing success. It is now available in Las Vegas, made with pork belly topped with hoisin sauce, scallions and cucumbers, and sandwiched in a soft steamed bun ($14, two per order). Equally delicious (and not for just vegetarians) is the Shiitake Bun—well-balanced and seasoned, with a soft texture; easily a two-order dish ($12, two per order).
Another universally familiar classic is Momofuku’s play on surf and turf: Fried Chicken & Caviar, which serves 4-8 people. This meal arrives with two Southern-fried chickens, bibb lettuce, kimchi and three sauces (hoisin, ginger scallion and Ssäm Sauce—go ahead, double-dip) and is served with a choice of eight ounces of smoked trout roe, white sturgeon caviar or golden osetra (market price, varies by selection). Chickpea Ramen ($18) is an umami-rich noodle soup that starts with a broth made with chickpea hozon. Chen says, “Hozon is a fermented, stone-ground seasoning made in the style of miso paste that the Momofuku Lab makes out in Brooklyn. Chickpeas provide a sweetness to the seasoning while also allowing tremendous depth. Chickpea hozon adds a richness and level of umami that we think does not require meat.” Topped with light and crunchy fried chickpeas, the dish’s flavors and textures are addictive.
The cocktail menu consists of some of the “greatest hits” from Chang’s restaurants, plus new additions just for Las Vegas, including a Suntory Highball on draft ($15). “Here, we are able to put both the whiskey and the soda in our draft system, allowing for the ideal carbonation every time,” Chang says. Wine selections include well-curated bottles, as well as lesser-known and boundary-pushing varietals.
They’ve Got the Look
If you look very carefully, Momofuku’s main dining room wall will make you feel like you’re being watched by beloved companions. Chang’s friend and mural artist David Choe covered the wall with two very special canines. “Seve is my son and best friend, and this is the first piece of artwork he has appeared in,” Chang says. “The mural also features Rosie, Choe’s Rottweiler. We’re excited to have both of our dogs featured.” The overall design of the space has a Vegas spin but retains an aesthetic found in all Momofuku restaurants. The wooden slating throughout is an evolution of the paneling used in Chang’s first restaurant.
Next door, Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar is a place of legendary riffs on childhood flavors and down-home classics, and is the perfect way to end the meal. A blackboard menu proclaims the treats available at the walk-up counter adjoining the restaurant: “Cookies! Cakes! Soft Serve! Coffee!” Tosi and Chang have worked together for years, ever since Tosi established Momofuku’s dessert program, which helped the restaurants earn much praise. Crack Pie, a sugary, buttery confection, is as craveable as its name implies ($6.50). Cereal Milk Soft Serve—made from everyone’s favorite part of a nutritious breakfast, the sweet and sugary milk at the bottom of a bowl of cereal ($6)—hits the spot, as does the Compost Cookie, a tumbling mound of chocolate chips, butterscotch, graham crackers, pretzels and coffee ($3) and the Cake Truffles, a trio pack of Birthday Cake or Chocolate Malt ($6). And who could forget Klossies, which are gluten-free, vegan cookies that are both sinful and sweet ($3.75)?