David Chang — globetrotting Momofuku restaurateur, NBC Olympics special correspondent, host of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, founder of a multimedia company, and owner of a dog that has more Instagram followers than most food writers — opened a meaty takeout stall in the Time Warner Center last week. It simultaneously tips its hat to Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Naturally, there’s a wait. That wait is not short. And the whole operation tends to shut down before 2 p.m. when things sell out. Good luck.
Welcome to Bāng Bar. In the a.m., the venue sells smoked salmon and cream cheese in taco-shaped folds of puffy bing bread. And in the afternoon, cooks piles gochujang-laced pork in a longer and flatter variety of the same baked product. Briefly: Everything is pretty great!
But before anyone gets their hopes up, let’s talk about the line. It has three distinct sections.
The first tranche starts near Solstice Sunglass Hut. Portable line guard lanyards, the kind used at airport security, cordon off 10 to 20 prospective diners at a time.
Every 10 minutes or so, a staffer lets about eight patrons through to the second tranche. Those lucky folks line up just outside of Bāng Bar — across from the Bose store — and wait to place their order. Despite the credit-card-only policy, this line does not move quickly.
After an order is taken, the patron is moved — if there’s room — to the third tranche, which is really more of a freeform waiting area, inside Bāng Bar itself. This is where chefs tend to spinning trompos of yakitori-style chicken, slicing the burnished meat and ladling it into doughy wraps. After about seven minutes, the given order is ready. Maybe.
“Why is the line divided up like this?” someone asks. “To allow for a more curated experience,” a staffer replies (it also ensures neighboring stores aren’t blocked). Employees ease the wait by handing out samples of milky Vietnamese coffee to the first half of the line and little bowls of jook to those who’ve already ordered. Sometimes cooks top the jook with a hefty scoop of kimchi stew — tender pork slathered in a crimson, chile-laced braising liquid. And sometimes they top it with a streak of vegetarian XO sauce, imparting just a whisper of salty funk to the clean porridge.
And about 30 to 60 minutes after you arrive at Time Warner, you actually get what you’d came here for: a $6 takeout lunch, normally procured elsewhere in about five minutes.
Here’s a little secret: There’s not much of a wait at all for breakfast, when the cooks stuff shards of rotisserie mortadella into a soft, American cheese-filled bread pocket. The saline end product recalls a classic Chinese hot dog bun, except drippier and with more chewy, crispy ends. And the lunchtime wait will also theoretically smooth out when Chang opens his Noodle Bar ramen shop next door.
Really, the biggest surprise is that Momofuku is here in the first place. In the mid-aughts, the Time Warner Center, with venues like Masa and Per Se at the helm, helped change the landscape of U.S. gastronomy by raising the limits on how much we’d pay for a meal and how long we’d spend sitting through one. In the East Village, however, Chang was doing something very different; he was serving high-salt, high-concept, globally minded small plates (and non-ripoff tasting menus) in cramped, stripped-down settings. As others made high-minded cuisine more exclusionary, Chang (along with April Bloomfield and others) was making it more diverse and less expensive.
Back in 2008, if one were to bet where Momofuku would end up in 2018, the Time Warner Center would not have been high on that list. And yet, now it’s here, thanks to a minority stake by RSE. The founder of that investment firm, Steven Ross, also owns Related Holdings, the developer for both Time Warner and Hudson Yards, where Chang will open a Korean spot next year. Momofuku’s arrival, at the very least, represents a small sign that certain established gatekeepers are becoming a tiny bit more openminded about whom they let in. Perhaps.
The chief purpose of Bāng Bar is simple: To act as a no-nonsense breakfast and lunchtime takeout spot, a task currently only fulfilled by Bouchon Bakery and the Whole Foods buffet. Or if one deigns to actually leave the building, it’s a task also fulfilled by the Turnstyle Food Hall in the subway or, well, literally every other well-oiled lunch spot in the neighborhood, of which there’s no shortage. This recalls a criticism I levied on Chang’s failed delivery service, Ando: It sold mediocre versions of “chicken over rice” halal available on every other street corner for less.
What makes Bāng Bar different is that feels less like a brazen replication or appropriation of global street meat than a uniquely syncretic riff on these traditions. It’s hard to think of another venue painting swine the color red like al pastor — with Korean chile paste — and serving it like Lebanese shawarma. The meat packs a restrained sweetness before yielding to a spicy, porky chew. The bing itself, burnished by the grill, boasts smoky overtones. Cooks fold the wrap into the shape of a U, a trick that prevents anything from dripping when held upright. The flavors or textures weren’t dampened, incidentally, when I sampled it an hour after ordering. Translation: A subway ride back to the office won’t lessen your enjoyment.
The chicken-wing exhibits equally complex flavors. A soy-mirin sweetness dominates the palate at first, but that’s followed by a hauntingly nuanced poultry tang. Vegetarians won’t be any worse off here, with a spicy eggplant spread offering as much depth as any legit baba ghanoush. And for now, lunch orders arrive with a small freebie: a mini-kkwabaegi, a Korean-style twisted doughnut made with fermented-chickpea cream-cheese glaze and butterscotch. It is a restrained and impressive evocation of that eternal shopping mall gem, the Cinnabon.
Bāng Bar is impressive in its early days, but just so we’re crystal clear: The line is punishing. And since fast-casual folks aren’t always looking to creatively workshop stuff (“we’re trying to disrupt this building a little bit,” I heard a manager say), I’d advise Bāng Bar to study the New York street carts more closely. Those lean operations can move through a hungry crowd of office workers more expeditiously and without the benefit of supply-chain Ph.D.s, indulgent freebies, or credit card-only policies. They just get it done.