Bo ssam, slow cooked pork shoulder (a variation on traditional Korean bo ssam, 보쌈, which is steamed or boiled pork belly eaten in vegetable wraps) is nothing new at Ssäm Bar, but it took me a while to get my hands on one. Why? Because as many of you probably know, eating bo ssam requires much planning. Not only do you have to round up 6-8 people, you also have to secure a highly coveted reservation on Momofuku’s online reservation system (which is a trial in itself), and then make sure the majority of your guests arrive 15 minutes within the time of the reservation. Fail at the last part, and the restaurant gives up your spot and you’re charged $200. If you want to cancel the reservation, you also have to cancel 24 hours in advance of the seating time to prevent the “penalty fee.” Two years ago I made a reservation, but leading up to the day, friends started emailing saying they might be late or they might not be able to make it because of work. The scenario was precarious at best, so I decided to cancel and reorganize for another night. Of course, that didn’t happen. In the days and weeks that followed, new restaurants, new bars, and new foods had to be tried, and bo ssam was quickly pushed off into the far lard-clogged recesses of my mind. That is until a few months ago when my friend, Christina, emailed asking if I wanted to join in on her Ssäm fest. She had already made a reservation and all I needed to do was show up. What had been difficult had become all too easy, and ultimately, oh god, so delicious.
Before I got to the restaurant, the group had already ordered. I’d wanted to save my appetite for bo ssam, but clearly, everyone was in the mood to feast.
Veal sweetbreads ($19), with watermelon, goat cheese, and almond clusters, were properly fried, and I liked the cool watermelon which contrasted with the slight funk of the goat cheese and the offal.
Whereas the sweetbreads were slightly funky, the duck liver mousse ($15) with purslane, olive berries, and roasted maitake mushrooms were full-on funk. For some it was a little “too ducky,” but I love liver and duck, so it was a win-win situation for me. I also appreciated the thin crunchy, oil soaked slices of bread they kept bringing to the table. It was thin enough so as not to dilute the liver flavor and also provided some much needed texture.
For those who love the steamed pork belly buns at Momofuku, there’s a new bun to love. The bbq buns ($6 each) are the same white, steamed buns stuffed with crisp pork belly, coleslaw, and smoked mayonnaise. Because of the smoked mayonnaise and coleslaw, there was a certain summeriness to these buns. It was like the best barbecue food you wish you could find at summer barbecues, but sadly do not.
However, as good as everything was, we weren’t there for liver, buns, or sweetbreads. It was all about the bo ssam ($200), and we got it: a whole Niman Ranch pork shoulder, cured overnight and slow roasted for 6-8 hours.
Served with the bo ssam was white rice, bibb lettuce, ssam sauce (or ssamjang, 쌈장; a mix of gochujang, red pepper paste, and denjang, fermented soy bean paste), kimchi, ginger scallion sauce…
and a dozen oysters.
Was it great? Was it awesome? Was it worth it? Hell yeah, all of the above. The meat was juicy and tender, and fell easily off the bone with a gentle tug of our tongs. No knives were necessary. As for all the condiments, there was something for everyone. Some went traditional with ssamjang (which was toned down on the denjang and heavier on the gochujang), kimchi, and oysters, and some like myself who preferred the Chinese ginger-scallion sauce with the pork. The best part, however, were the crisp exterior edges which were salty, porky, and just a tad sweet. When Chris said she was done, and I spied a crisp little chunk left on her plate, I quickly swooped down and popped it in my mouth before she could change her mind. Not that there wasn’t enough food. Far from it. There were six of us, but we could barely finish half. If I were to go back for bo ssam, I’d probably hold off on most of the apps. Not an easy feat, but eyes on the prize people. Good things come to those who wait.