The once-formidable Momofuku empire has been shuttering its restaurants to focus on packaged goods, and its New York City graveyard is now cluttered with restaurant tombstones: Momofuku Ssäm Bar (2006-2023), Momofuku Ko (2008-2023), Nishi (2016-2020), and Ma Peche (2010-2018), not to mention projects you may not remember like Ando, Booker and Dax, Fuku +, Bar Wayo, and Peach Mart. Meanwhile, the fried-chicken brand Fuku is undergoing a reset.
Yet through all this shrinkage, the sire of the empire remains. When Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in the East Village on a rundown stretch of First Avenue (171 First Avenue, near 11th Street) in 2004, the excitement it caused is now hard to imagine. The restaurant changed the culinary expectations for the neighborhood forever, with David Chang becoming the East Village’s own celebrity chef.
A friend and I decided to eat again at this location of Momofuku Noodle Bar (there’s a second in Columbus Circle) to see if things were as good as we remembered them. With Chang stepping away from today’s restaurant landscape, we thought a little nostalgia might be in order.
A crowd milled around in front of the narrow storefront. Up above perched a tiny peach as the restaurant’s only signage. Inside, we joined a ragged line and learned that a table would be available in an hour, and repaired to a cider bar on the next block and waited.
Once our name was summoned, we headed inside to find an interior as brightly lit as an airport runway. Two end-to-end counters are tightly packed with backless stools, handsome but uncomfortable. The one in back runs along a slender kitchen; a dining area faces the kitchen, with tables for six that are as tight as the counters. One of Chang’s legacies is fitting the max seats into small spaces, a technique he perfected at Nishi.
I counted around 70 seats, in a space that might have more comfortably accommodated 45 or 50. But nobody seems to care; the crowd is thrilled to be there, and some even drag suitcases behind them as they arrive, parking them in the front window, as if grabbing a quick bite on the way to their East Village Airbnbs.
Some dishes are by now compulsory. One is the fleecy steamed bao wrapped around a generous slab of pork belly (two for $15). In the early days, the belly was braised so that it remained pale and floppy; now it is darkly seared so it looks like a thick piece of bacon. The bacony belly doesn’t make the small sandwiches any better than they used to be; just different.
Chang’s early menu popularized the kind of garlicky cucumber salad, ($12) as a cool refreshing counterpoint to a bowl of hot ramen. His version, at this point, is a bit more complex, incorporating peanuts and radishes smeared with a thick grainy dressing. More recently, a small bowl of especially flavorful kimchi ($6) has been added to the appetizer menu.
The deconstructed hand rolls are another comparative newcomer, broken down on two plates that feature sheets of nori, rice sprinkled with the spice mixture shichimi togarashi and heaped with purple eggplant pickles, tartar sauce, and in this case ($21) head-on shrimp breaded and cooked katsu style. This was a highlight of the meal, with its unctuous crunchiness. Other filling hand roll choices included scallops, maitake mushrooms, and the ubiquitous seared pork belly.
We were really excited by the main-course ramen. They are delivered by a runner who hands them over your shoulder from behind, in a startling Noodle Bar ritual. Three ramens are available per day, though two were the rule in the early days.
The two we picked have been Noodle Bar classics. Both had clarified broths, in contrast to the milky tonkotsu that were their competitors in the early days at other ramen restaurants. Smoked pork ramen ($21) floated a raft of smoky pork belly that is the restaurant’s contemporary signature, plus a frond of crunchy bamboo, and a poached egg cooked jiggly in the science chef manner. The broth was dark and the wheat noodles firm and of medium thickness. The bowl was wonderful, even if it was too close to breakfasty bacon and eggs for my liking.
Our absolute favorite dish of the evening — its only competition the DIY shrimp hand roll — was garlic chicken ramen ($20). With some colorful greens strewn on top (submerge to make them wilt a little before digging in), the broth was absolutely the best chicken soup we’ve ever tasted, and there was plenty of pulled chicken with fatty bits.
We finished up our meal with some toasted barley soft-serve ice cream ($9); smothered in honey, it tasted like butterscotch — a nice descent from the salty swagger of the ramen. As we finished up and left around 9:00 p.m., we noticed that the place had emptied out. If the place manages to persist in the face of Chang’s restaurant chain downsizing, that’s the time to show up.