With the recent news that David Chang will be expanding his Momofuku empire with a restaurant called North Spring here in Los Angeles, there's a lot of speculation about exactly what form that restaurant will take and how it will or will not differ from his other Momofuku outposts. Chang himself has said: “We’re going to try and make something very delicious and very new. I don’t want to do something that we’ve done before for L.A.”
A comparison to Andy Ricker's Pok Pok is somewhat unavoidable: Both restaurants are celebrated brands from other cities with highly respected chefs at the helm, and both of those chefs chose L.A.'s Chinatown as the location for their California expansion. Pok Pok didn't last long here, for a variety of reasons. But one of those reasons was that L.A. already has a lot of great Thai food and is somewhat resistant to an outside chef coming in and trying to re-create the success he's found in other cities that have far fewer Thai options.
Could the same fate befall Chang?
To get some perspective, I stopped by the most recently opened outpost of Momofuku, at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. Given Chang's promise to make North Spring unique to its location, there's only so much to be learned from looking at the Las Vegas branch. But the experience did cement, for me, some of what could be wonderful about the forthcoming Momofuku iteration in L.A. — and some of what Chang will be up against if the project is to succeed.
Momofuku Las Vegas is located in the part of the Cosmopolitan that is basically a very upscale mall, next to a designer clothing store and just a few doors up from the Vegas branch of L.A.'s Eggslut. It's a big room that's dominated by a huge, colorful mural by artist David Choe, as well as windows that look out over the strip and an open kitchen. The place has a ton of energy.
The menu format is closer to that of Momofuku CCDC in Washington, D.C., than any of Chang's other operations. There are snacks and main courses and a whole page dedicated to expensive “large-format” plates, which must be ordered in advance. Interestingly, there are only a couple of noodle options on the dinner menu, neither of them ramen (though the lunch and late-night menus have two ramen options). Noodles make up a larger portion of the offerings at most of Chang's other (non–fine dining) restaurants, and I wonder if he's leaving himself the option of opening a separate Vegas noodle bar.
It's not hard to cobble together a meal here out of lower-priced items (and in fact, the buns here are significantly cheaper than they are at his other locations), but most of the menu is pretty damned expensive: A whole branzino costs $74; Korean braised short ribs are $108. And those aren't even large-format dishes; on that part of the menu, dishes run from $208 for salt-and-pepper lobster (or a larger portion of the short ribs) to $1,488 for two whole fried chickens with 8 ounces of Golden Osetra caviar.
I get it — this is Vegas, and many people come here to blow money on over-the-top dining experiences. But it's not so different from the pricing at Chang's other restaurants, and it got me thinking about one of the conundrums he will face when creating his L.A. menu. As much as Los Angeles has a reputation for glitz and glamour, there are actually only a few neighborhoods that are able to support wildly expensive restaurants. It may not be fair, but part of why Pok Pok didn't succeed is because people didn't want to pay Ricker's prices (which were quite low compared with average Momofuku prices). It's unlikely Chang will blaze into Chinatown hoping to sell a ton of fried chicken with Osetra caviar, but even $15 chicken wings might be pushing it.
Unsurprisingly, the food at Momofuku Las Vegas reinforces the reputation Chang has for bold, creative cooking. Where other folks are dotting their kampachi crudo with another round of yuzu, Chang's is doused in mezcal and lightly pickled cucumber and smoked trout roe, and it's dazzling in its complexity and balance and delicious weirdness. The pork belly buns here are fatter and bouncier and juicier than most. No punches are pulled: When something on the menu claims to be “spicy,” such as the eggplant topped with a chili sofrito imbued with the porcine kiss of Iberico ham, you'd best believe they mean spicy.
After the meal, my dinner companion asked me, “How is that food so different from what everyone else is doing?” My friend is a food lover but not a food obsessive, and this was her first meal at a Chang restaurant. I told her that much of what everyone else is doing today (that is, taking Chinese and Korean and Japanese flavors and putting them into a modern American context without dumbing them down) is quite often mimicking what Chang did more than a decade ago. He wasn't the only one, but he was one of the first and one of the best, and he's influenced food culture immeasurably.
Still, she has a point. What can Momofuku give Los Angeles that Los Angeles doesn't already have?
I guess we're about to find out.