It first came into my life in February 2013, as I was planning my girlfriend Sarah's birthday dinner for the first time. At this time we had been together 11 months. I asked her friend Christina for planning options over email.
"Momofuku is amazing," she wrote. "Bo ssäm is perfect for eight people. Pork!"
Momofuku Ssäm Bar, the popular spot at 207 2nd Ave in NYC's East Village, was the thought. In my twenties, living in Connecticut and then in the Hudson Valley of New York, I frequented New York City as my regular place of refuge. Friends lived there, long nights that became endless mornings lived there, and time seemed to stop every time I visited. Coffee turned into beer and writing turned into dinner with friends, which turned into me drunkenly finding my way back to my friend's apartment across from Wall Street. I left his sport jacket at a bar one night. I pounded beers at McSorley's. I plotted my career while hiding out at Burp Castle.
In an attempt to not sound typical, everyone should try to live in New York City once. There's nothing like it. If you're in it and love it, you blend easily into the wild collage, find your place, and carve out a weird routine that may include dinner at 9:30 p.m., working until 3 a.m., random trips to beaches and forests in your own city, then never leaving your three-block radius for a week because everything you need is right there.
Plus, there's the culture and food. I lacked variety in both growing up. I liked "Mexican" restaurants that served crunchy tacos loaded with sour cream, and Chinese always meant shrimp and lobster sauce. I don't think I tried Thai food until college or Indian food until I was 23. Having regular access to New York City slowly changed all of it, and every new experience was simply another step forward, unlocking more doors that led to more cuisines.
By 29 I was open to any kind of food, and after meeting Sarah and her friends, I had to be. They were foodies in a sense, but really just cultured people who had traveled regularly— think Laos, South Korea, Mexico, parts of Europe. When we were together, we ate where they wanted to eat, and I was better off for it.
But Ssäm Bar. I had quickly become a fan of chef David Chang, the man who put a youthful, exuberant face on adventurous, modern Asian cuisine, and pork was currency in our friend group, so Ssäm Bar was always high on our list of places to visit. We didn't get there in February 2013, but in March 2014 we did. For our friend Trent's birthday, a friend suggested we get enough people to enjoy a bo ssäm experience. You get the full pork shoulder—cured overnight then glazed with brown sugar and roasting juices—lettuce wraps, rice, and sauces. You put the pork, rice, and sauces in a wrap, maybe add an oyster, and enjoy a carnival ride of fatty, salty, sumptuous flavors.
We arrived at Ssäm Bar for an early Sunday dinner (which was when we could get a table booked), and proceeded to have one of the best dining experiences of our lives. The place certainly looked gorgeous, but felt comfortable. It was the platonic ideal of a restaurant with wood tables and the hint of sheen, but employees dressed casually, there was a constant chatter, and it was lit just enough from the windows and the bulbs in the back. Really the emphasis was on the pork, full stop, and the men and women preparing it and serving it, all in full view.
Our meal had laughing and chatting and moments of exhilaration all in one. It cost $200, it lasted two hours, and I had never tasted better meat. We each walked to the subway with some leftover pork.
Ssäm Bar became our favorite celebration spot. For example, a year and a half later we came together for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, and instead of cooking turkey—or anything—we just got take-out pork shoulder.
It turns out that every time I had Ssäm Bar, Nick Wong was probably there in the kitchen. Well, I'm not sure if he actually handled the pork I ate, but Wong was the sous chef, then chef de cuisine, at Ssäm Bar between late 2013 and mid-2017. Essentially, my experiences with Ssäm Bar, my memories of that incredible pork, are linked to Wong's time there.
I came to Houston in June 2018. One month before, Wong started working as chef de cuisine at UB Preserv. Now, Ssäm Bar is relocating. It won't be the same—as nothing is when it moves, especially in New York, where space almost always influences cooking—and Wong says so himself. He holds the place in highest regard.
"It was the stubborn mindset that took in cooks that would have been outright fired at nicer, better, more finessed restaurants within a month, but instead invested and built them up to be leaders in their own rights," he said. "It was the place that turned me, for better or worse, into the chef I am now."
Ssam Bar is the place that turned me, for better or worse, into the foodie I am now. It helped shape my evolution as an eater and connected me to food in a completely new way—that is, it made me realize that the best restaurants are the ones that bring your family closer together. Especially over pork.
Wong paid tribute to the old Ssäm Bar last weekend with a special takeout menu at UB Preserv. I had it with Sarah (now my wife), ordering the baby bo ssäm for two and a couple pork buns. It immediately brought me back to 2nd Avenue, those time-bending New York days and nights, those loose and wild moments. Luckily, Wong is doing it again this weekend with baby bo ssäm, pork buns, apple kimchi, fried Brussels sprouts, spicy pork sausage ragu and rice cakes, and ca phe sua da carrot cake. Visit the UB Preserv website to order.