For a solid few years, from about 2008 to 2011, when an out-of-towner asked us where they should be eating in New York, we had an easy go-to answer: Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Sure, there were tons of amazing restaurants opening up in the city at that time, but for a one-stop shop that captured what eating in the East Village was all about, Ssäm Bar was a pretty great bet. There were interesting things to eat, no reservations, uncomfortable seats, and a lot of pork belly. Remember how excited people used to get about bacon?
Now that we’ve gone on this trip down memory lane together, we’re going to suggest you close the history book, and store all that information in some overstuffed cabinet of your brain. Because Momofuku Ssam Bar is a pretty different restaurant now, and it’s best enjoyed if you can think about it that way.
While the restaurant overall looks similar, has the same name, and still serves a few of the same dishes, the place has evolved. For one, they take reservations (which aren’t too hard to get), and they’ve gotten rid of the uncomfortable stools. But more importantly, the menu has changed pretty significantly - where this was once a place you would only want to take people ready to go ham on some ham, menu highlights now include things like a scallop crudo and a piece of roasted skate and potatoes and burrata with garam masala. Yes, there are steaks and ribs and plenty of opportunities to make your body hurt in the morning, but overall there are more options to eat a bit lighter. Fortunately, this food is still very, very good. And much of it is also inventive, exciting, and different.
They continue to serve the most iconic dishes - the pork buns and spicy rice cakes - but they’re technically off-menu. They’re still tasty and deeply satisfying, but they’re also a bit like watching reruns of Friends night after night, when you have access to an HBO Go password. They serve pork buns at the food hall in the United terminal in Newark now, you know?
If you’ve never been to Ssäm Bar then sure, get some pork buns and spicy rice cakes. But with so many Momofuku imitators around the world (and just actual other Momofuku restaurants around the world), we’d encourage coming here to try some of the newer stuff. Is it as trailblazing as it once was? Not quite. But it’s still doing stuff that feels fresh, and which tastes overall very good. These days, when an out-of-towner asks us where they should be eating, we’d have a long list to send them. But we’d work Ssäm Bar in there somewhere.
Maine Uni Over Rice
A bowl of rice with some roe and a whole bunch of uni. If you like rice and things that taste like the ocean, you will like this very much.
Peconic Bay Scallops
There are raw scallops under those crispy brussels sprouts. One of our favorite appetizers.
To be clear, there’s not exactly a shortage of pork here now, and it’s absolutely worth getting one of the country ham plates. They come with crusty bread and an awesome coffee-spiked mustard sauce. We like the Broadbent and Benton’s, but they’re all great.
Max’s Curry & Potatoes
Turns out putting a bunch of crispy potatoes in a bowl of curry with burrata and spinach is a great idea.
Extra Spicy Shell-On Shrimp
These shrimp come in a bowl with Momofuku’s legendary rice cakes, and is one of our favorite newer additions to the menu.
Banana Leaf Roasted Skate
An excellent piece of fish, coated in a shrimp paste sauce, and served with little sides of piping hot congee. Get this instead of the fish ssam, no question.
Whole Roasted Fish Ssäm
The lettuce wrap ssam platters after which this restaurant was named can still be had in small sizes at lunch in pork, duck, and brisket varieties, but at dinner, it’s a big sharing portion with fish only. It’s OK, but wrapping moist fish in lettuce wraps isn’t that awesome. Get the skate instead.
Glazed St. Louis Ribs
Yep, these are tasty.
Roasted Rice Cakes
They’re technically off menu, but your server will also tell you about them, so it’s not like they’re some secret. The crunchy rice cakes come in a rich, spicy sauce, with ground pork, fried onions, and scallions. It’s a dish that is absolutely delicious for a few bites, and dangerous after a few more.
Look, these pork belly buns are still really good. Also off-menu but readily available.