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The I Chang

The radical chef David Chang became an unlikely superstar making strange, cheap, and mesmerizing food at Momofuku Noodle Bar. But with his new project (Asian burritos!) off to a slow start, the willful iconoclast faces an unpalatable choice: stay culty and small or compromise and bring in the masses.

David Chang has nothing against vegetarians. He just doesn’t like to cook for them.

That much is made clear on the menu of his East Village restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar, which offers exactly one vegetarian dish—ginger-scallion noodles. OUR ONLY VEGETARIAN OPTION, it reads in boldface type, as if to say, “Hey, you can take it or leave it.” A further examination of the menu, with its exuberance of pig tails, pork necks, Berkshire bellies, and boutique bacon, might lead you to speculate as to whether Chang was kidnapped by a gang of vegan hippies at a young age and then force-fed wheatgrass and raw parsnips and this is his revenge.

Why would someone choose to run a restaurant with only one non-meat or non-fish option in a vegetarian-friendly neighborhood like the East Village? “Well, I guess it was because I don’t like people telling me what to do,” says Chang.

And when Chang was struggling to keep Noodle Bar afloat in the months after its August 2004 opening, everyone was telling him what to do: “From day one, people would say, ‘You need more vegetarian options! You need more vegetarian options!’” Even casual passersby felt obligated to chime in with unsolicited opinions. “I’d be outside having a cigarette,” recalls Chang, “and people would walk by me and say, ‘Mo-mo-fuck-u, what a stupid name!’”

Back before Momofuku Noodle Bar was a certified hit, before it won widespread critical acclaim, before there was a rabble of foodies parked outside its door every night at 5:30 sharp, clamoring to get in, Chang remembers receiving a phone call. “It was a lady who said she was a vegetarian,” he says, “and that she got something to go, and there was broth on the side, and she drank it.”

“I said, ‘We don’t have any vegetarian broths,’ and she said, ‘Well, you should, and anyway, somebody said it was,’ and I said, ‘Well, that must have been a miscommunication.’”

“You can’t do this to the vegetarians!” the lady bellowed, before threatening to sue Chang and put Momofuku Noodle Bar out of business.

“I got so pissed off,” says Chang.

So pissed off, in fact, that the very next day, in a public-relations gambit that would give Danny Meyer night sweats, Chang and his co-chef, Joaquin Baca, removed every vegetarian dish from the menu (back then there were still a few) except the ginger-scallion noodles.

“We added pork to just about everything else,” says Chang, giggling like a schoolgirl.

“We said, ‘Fuck it, let’s just cook what we want.’”

David Chang is something of a culinary rebel. In a town overflowing with precious temples of gastronomy and $2.50 falafel shacks, he has defiantly carved out a tasty, idiosyncratic middle ground with inventive new riffs on traditional Asian flavors. His food is more than cheap and delicious—it is the unique synthesis of his highbrow training with his lowbrow appetites. And it is, apparently, just what New York was hungering for. In less than two years, Chang shot from obscurity to a James Beard nomination, Food & Wine magazine changed its own selection criteria to name him one of the country’s Best New Chefs, and Noodle Bar’s success touched off a wave of imitators, sending phrases like “Berkshire pork” and “housemade pickles” reverberating across menus around town. “For a lot of people, it was such a new concept,” says Craft’s Tom Colicchio. “A cool place where you could get really good food fairly inexpensively with no pretense and no bullshit.”

The world was Chang’s oyster, or at least his pork-belly bun. So instead of enjoying the moment, instead of going upscale and trying to become the ethnic-food equivalent of Thomas Keller, instead of teaming up with a moneybags gastropreneur or Vegas tycoon to clone Momofuku across America, what did Dave “Fuck It” Chang do?

He opened a burrito bar.

Not just any burrito bar, mind you, but a quirky, cafeteria-style Asian burrito bar in the East Village specializing in ssäm, a Korean word that means “anything wrapped.” In this case, anything wrapped means everything from Berkshire pork to organic chicken accessorized with edamame, azuki beans, and kimchee purée, all folded with rice into a flour pancake. Chang calls it Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and the decidedly unconventional (not to mention schizophrenic) approach he has taken there is to figuratively build a whole second restaurant on top of the first, essentially creating two restaurants in one. The first, in an early shift, offers burritos to anyone who wants them. The second, in a late shift, caters to a crowd of culinary aristocrats and off-duty chefs after the space transforms itself from a burrito bar each evening into a full-service restaurant with a menu that reads like some kind of lunatic gourmand’s death-row wish list (four types of country ham, a whole wheel of Epoisses, fancy corn dogs). And still, there’s more: With the burrito profits he hopes to rake in, Chang plans to spin off more Asian-burrito bars, all in the service of bankrolling the ambitious efforts of his talented colleagues—who otherwise couldn’t afford to open their own restaurants—in a revolutionary kind of culinary collective. “It’s too hard to open up a restaurant now, even if you’re really talented,” says Chang, who plans to make his chefs and managers co-owners. “I believe it’s got to be more of a group effort. By doing this, we can attract more talent and change the way things are done.”