Pork Bun noun: a Chinese snack consisting of steamed or baked bread dough filled with barbecued pork.
While walking through the East Village, one can find a slew of restaurants of different varieties and styles. Once taking a closer look (or going on a food crawl,) one may notice there are a number of Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants lining 1st through 5th Avenue, Houston to 14th Street. The team at Viewing NYC took to the daunting task of locating the best Pork Bun among these restaurants. Through the East Village streets 20 brave souls crawled on, persistent, and hungry, seeking out the best bao of all in the first ever Viewing NYC East Village Pork Bun Crawl.
We did some research and chose the 12 spots to visit, all within the borders of the East Village. Most of the pork buns spots have appeared on various top-ten lists around the web, others have amazing reviews on places like Eater, Zagat, and Yelp, some were passed to us by word of mouth.
When I think of a pork bun, I don’t think that it is a lot of food to handle, and thus I could take on a few of these. But we were tackling twelve different stops over a course of four hours, so we cut each bun in half eating a total of six buns through our journey. We ordered the standard pork bun (though we had one non-pork eating crawler, who ate otherwise) and we could not rate the bun based off of any additional sauces other than the one that came on it by default. Bare buns all the way!
Immediately upon devouring delicious juicy pork bun goodness, each crawler rated the bun on the crawler website, rating it from 1—5, and uploading their comments and pictures. Crawlers were given a chance to revise ratings as we progressed through the crawl and could compare and contrast with other buns.
The Pork Buns
- Ichiba Ramen: Pork Bun 2. Gyu-Kaku: Gyu-Pork Belly Bun 3. Ramen Setagaya: Hiroshi Bun 4. Han Dynasty: Taiwan Pork Belly Bun 5. Bauhaus: Chairman Bao 6. Momofuku Ssäm Bar: Steamed Bun 7. Love Mamak: BBQ Char Siu Bun 8. Rai Rai Ken: Pork Bun 9. Momofuku Noodle Bar: Al Pastor Bun 10. Ugly Kitchen: Spicy Pork Bun 11. Zen 6: Steamed Chinese Style Bun, Pork 12. Cho-Ko: Pork Bun
More on how each of these ranked just ahead… or TL;DR
We covered 2.2 miles of the East Village starting in Union Square. We crawled all 12 spots in just over 5 hours!
Our findings are listed in order of least mouthwatering, to salivating mess.
Bottom Tier: 12th Place
Ramen Setagaya - 2.500/5
One bun had to come in last place, and thankfully, it was my least favorite. The Hiroshi Bun at Ramen Setagaya was a basic Pork Bun; the bun was soft, the pork was thinner than standard, and it was topped with iceberg lettuce and miso paste.
Meat thin, buns are fluffy! Standard, hits the spot but does not exceed expectations
Nothing memorable about these buns. The thin slice of pork was overcooked and tasted microwaved. Underwhelming toppings too :(.
Fluffy bun, poor ratio of meat to bun. Tastes like cheeseburger.
Overall, this bun was just not living up to the standard of "the best pork buns of the East Village." Next!
Bottom Tier: 11th Place
Gyu-Kaku – 2.684/5
This was our second stop on the crawl, and we were still bright eyed and hopeful of our Pork Bun futures. The Gyu-Pork Belly Bun at Gyu-Kaku featured lettuce that appeared wilted, the bun appeared disheveled and soggy, and the meat was overcooked.
Meat was really fatty. Liked the tenderness and spicyness. Bun was slightly soggy at first touch.
Topping and sauce were disappointing, and the meat was just okay.
Thousand island sauce was tacky, over cooked pork was like thick cut bacon, but in a bad way. Presentation not so good, falling apart
Almost all the crawlers saw right through the basic Thousand Island dressing.
Bottom Tier: 10th Place
Momofuku Noodle Bar – 3.538/5
The Al Pastor bun at the Momofuku Noodle Bar is described on their menu as "pineapple, avocado, cilantro." To me it kind of sounds like a taco, to which many other crawlers agreed.
Unique, but not that good actually. Pineapple was refreshing but bizarre, my bun didn't have much avocado at all. Pork was really good though, albeit ground like spam, but together wasn't as good as some other places
Like a pork bun met a taco and had a baby
Such a different pork bun! The pork was ground and compacted back together but had a great flavor. The pineapple was a neat addition. Over all weird but still pretty tasty.
Points for the avocado and pineapple. But I didn't like that the meat was ground and the pink pickled stuff.
Should be 3.5. Totally unique. Ground pork with guac pineapple and pickled onion. Very good, but non traditional. Would make an excellent soft taco
Sweet and tangy makes it my favorite.
Our porkless crawler tried the brisket bun, and rated it his favorite bun of the day with a 5/5 for a "solid piece of brisket with a nice cucumber crunch."
The Al Pastor bun received mixed reviews, but definitely wins points for creativity. Despite being low on the list overall, the bun is one I would definitely make a trip to try!
Bottom Tier: 9th Place
Cho-Ko – 3.727/5
The Pork Bun at Cho-Ko received pretty solid reviews as the only Korean-styled bun of the day featuring BBQ sauce. With hints of citrus, a nice fat to sauce ratio, and a solid presentation, this bun held its own.
Yummy yummy sauce had a little citrus in it, a bit of Korean flavors in it, presentation nice, good balance of sauce with fatty meats
Unique spicy sauce
A deliciously simple and unassuming bun with some super tasty sauce thrown in. One of the best on the crawl!
The smoky BBQ sauce definitely saved this bun from a lower ranking.
Middle Tier: 8th Place
Rai Rai Ken – 3.786/5
Boy, the Pork Bun at Rai Rai Ken was pretty tasty! The meat was extremely tender without being overly fatty like some of the others on the crawl. The lettuce added a nice crunch, but some crawlers stressed there was too much bun!
Good but poor pork to bun ration. Too much bun!!
Solid choice. Vegetables offer a nice crunch. Sauce was decently spicy. Meat wasn't anything special.
Imagine Beijing duck in pork form
So tender, hoisin sauce on the bun was amazing, heavy on the bun though. Extra sauce was incredible!
This bun was good, but the extra sauce on the side made it incredible. The sauce wasn’t allowed to count towards our rating, but seriously, ask for extra-extra sauce.
Middle Tier: 7th Place
Bauhaus – 4.063/5
The Chairman Bao at Bauhaus was a solid pork bun, and one we were all looking forward to. It had an extra small bun with a nice thick piece of meat. It almost looked like a rainbow of fatty heavens. Other features included a peanut crunch, cilantro and a spicy hoisin sauce.
Thick thick slab of meet and extremely well marinated! Bun on the smaller side but the taste is huge.
Pork to bun ratio was out of this world! Tiny buns with thick cut pork belly, peanut crunch and shredded cilantro combine with a slightly spicy hoisin balanced wall.
Deliciousness abounds. Not the absolute best of the crawl but pretty darn close. Huge hunk of meat on a slightly smaller-than-average bun. Nice pickled relish and crushed peanuts. Great combo and a super solid bun!
Good slice of meat. It's the pillar of this bun.
Bauhaus proved to our crawlers that it’s the size of the meat that matters most.
Middle Tier: 6th Place
Momofuku Ssäm Bar – 4.125/5
This was the first of the two Momofuku restaurants we stopped at during the crawl. At Momofuku Ssäm Bar we grabbed the Steamed Buns, which featured a double layer of pork, cucumber and a hoisin sauce. The fatty pork left a lasting taste in our mouths which resonated throughout the crawlers reviews.
The best!!! Melt in your mouth-2 thick pork belly pieces-so juicy and delicious!!
Literally.melts.in.your.mouth. The pork is so tender and wonderful, and the red sauce on the side is so tasty. Perhaps the best on the crawl!
Soggy but savory. Double meat was a nice touch. A lasting after taste
Very fatty double layered, good hoisin sauce and extra ssam sauce. Highly anticipated and didn't let down at all. No crunch though, needed a bit more textural contrast. Not perfect, but 4.5 rounds up to 5 for me.
While the bun was a bit soggy from the heavy pork, we could all agree that this one was yummy and #GREASY.
Middle Tier: 5th Place
Ugly Kitchen – 4.182/5
Ugly Kitchen was the only bun on the crawl labeled as a Spicy Pork Bun. Crawlers agreed that the presentation was pretty, funny, considering it’s called Ugly Kitchen. The pork was flavorful and spicy, and they didn’t skimp on how much they packed into each bun. The meat was accompanied by a cucumber crunch and spicy sauce.
So good!! The filling is falling out of the bun! Spicy and refreshing with cucumber and sauce
Beautiful presentation and leanest pork. Feel a little healthier.
Very pretty presentation, spicy ingredients, messy sauce yet tasty, stale bun a little bit but pretty well balanced
Healthy? Near the end of a pork bun crawl? Lean pork meat stuffed this bun, and the hot sauce would rev up our metabolisms through the last chunk of our crawl stops (we can wish!) Definitely another one added to my personal list to try again.
Upper Tier: 4th Place
Zen 6 – 4.273/5
At Zen 6 we tasted the Steamed Chinese Style Bun, Pork (as they also offer shiitake mushroom and shrimp.) The pork bun comes with spicy mayo, iceberg, and scallions. The bun was perfectly prepared and presented, and while seeming simple to the eye, it tantalized our taste buds as it melted in our mouths.
Wow! Surprise best pork bun-best combination of juicy meaty and fatty pork belly with thick mayo sauce-melt in your mouth-amazing!
The meat is deliciously crispy on the outside but still melt-in-your-mouth on the inside. Slight taste of ginger. Perfectly simple mayo. Makes for a great, unassuming bun!
Simple but solid. Meat had just enough fat, generous amount of sauce, crunchy lettuce, perfectly steamed bun.
Outstanding ingredients and preparation here, albeit basic flavored. Simple, classic, came together nicely with the highest quality ingredients we have seen.
While some crawlers argued this bun was boring, majority votes this one was simple, and utterly delicious.
Upper Tier: 3rd Place
Ichiba Ramen – 4.294/5
Ichiba Ramen was our first stop on the Pork Bun Crawl, and I was a little surprised by its proximity to Union Square. Ichiba is modern looking, described by some of our crawlers as "very NYU." We tasted their Pork Bun which was extremely soft with a thick cut of pork belly, sweet sauce, and cucumbers that added a nice refreshing crunch.
Juicy pork and nice buns! Off to a good start!! Nice packaging. Cool location and storefront. Small cucumber for a burst of color. Slab of meat was tender.
Balanced flavors. Pork a bit too inconsistent, some parts were dry some juicy.
Despite the haters (who say that the bites of pork without sauce were dry), these pork buns were DELECTABLE! The sorta-soy sauce was delicious, the buns were soft and flavorful, the pickled cucumber was a perfect touch, and the overall effect made me hungry for more!
Delicious! Meat was juicy and tender, generous amount of sauce.
Flavorful sauce, full cucumbers added a freshness that balanced with the fatty pork. Pork tender and well cooked, good even split of fat and pork.
Overall, the crawlers agreed this was an excellent pork bun to start with. Super soft, sweet, and meaty!
Upper Tier: 2rd Place
Han Dynasty – 4.333/5
Han Dynasty was definitely the gossiped front runner, and they definitely didn’t disappoint! This Taiwan Pork Belly Bun had meat that was out of this world; with a caramelized thick fatty edge. The meat was balanced out with nuts, pickled veggies, cilantro, a five spice rub and a hint of sugar.
Chinese style pork with 5 spice was something different, and amazingly good. Carmelized fatty edge atop rendered fat was blissful. Peanut and cilantro flavoring paired well with the meat. The bun itself was nothing special but held Eveything well.
Crushed peanut and sugar coasted bottom, with pork belly fat and the pickled veggies - oh so good.
Crazy blend of flavors...subtle sweetness of he peanut and marbled fat of the pork, with the slightest kick from the cilantro
Omg. Delicious, tender pork with wonderfully carmalized fat on top, soft and sticky buns, crushed peanut and sugar thrown in there, and some cilantro for good measure. Truly phenom. My favorite so far!
This bun changed the game of our crawl. This Chinese style bun definitely became my high bar for some of the other presumed front runners that would follow.
Upper Tier: 1st Place and WINNER of the 2016 Viewing NYC East Village Pork Bun Crawl
Love Mamak – 4.429/5
Our 2016 East Village Pork Bun Crawl Winner is Love Mamak! I didn’t expect much from this place after tasting Han Dynasty, Bau Haus, and Momofuku, but boy these BBQ Char Siu Buns were the bomb-dot-com. The only Vietnamese-style bun of our crawl, the meat was thinner, beautifully seasoned, and almost had a jerky texture. The sriracha mayo added a nice kick, accompanied by simple lettuce and peanut sauce.
Vietnamese style, fried meat low fat, excellent sauce, sriracha sauce mayo tied in with some spice and some fatty flavor
Lean pork satay style with peanut sauce
The meat had less fat on it which I really liked. The sauce was delicious.
This was probably my favorite bun. But it all fairness, it was Vietnamese style and truly in its own category with its simple and perfect braised pork, lettuce, and ah-mazing sauce. So freaking good.
Simple, flavorful, and well sauced. Sneakily good.
The spiced Vietnamese pork was some of the best I've had. The food was unassuming and delicious!
Loved it! Different than the others with the BBQ texture and loved the nutty sauce
Pure, simple, perfect
Different than the classic pork bun with a Vietnamese twist with peanuty sauce!
Really good complex flavor
Cruuuuuunch! And spice. Crunch and spice! Yes!
This bun was in a category of its own. This was one of the more simple buns of the day in terms of ingredients, but the meat's flavor stood out from the rest, and with a perfect balance of the sauce and all other ingredients, the bun left us begging for more.
I had trouble thinking that twelve pork buns could taste that different (you’ve had one pork bun you’ve had them all.) However, it was quite the opposite. Each stop on our crawl had a unique visible presentation. Some pork was too fatty, while others were too dry. Some nailed the accompanying sauce; others seemed to just spread mayo. Overall, it was worthwhile to weed out the simple from the exquisite.
And there you have it. Pork buns in their (open faced) glory.
Editor's Note on the Results
Those of you familiar with the East Village restaurant scene know that Ippudo has one of the best rated pork buns in the City, but we could not include them on this crawl. Ippudo does not do any take-out orders, delivery or doggy bags at all. There is simply no way to get the food out of the restaurant unless it's inside of your belly. Because we had 20 people on the crawl, and Ippudo could not accomodate us, we were forced to skip it.
In this Pork Bun crawl, we had already limited the list down to the best 12 we could find. Thus this list is already the best of the best. Most of the pork buns rate over 4.0 on average, and the lowest 2 may have just had an off day. Even a Momofuku restaurant scored low on this best-of list.
While we stand by our results and our #1 pick of Love Mamak, as chosen by our varied group of crawlers, you should really try a bunch of these places for yourself to see what kind of Pork Bun lover you are, and use our ratings and reviews to help you figure out which spot is your #1.
— Matt Coneybeare, Editor-in-Chief
Congrats to our winner Love Mamak and all of the other restaurants on the crawl. And congrats to the crawlers who sacrificed their bellies to successfully devour 6 or more pork buns (many of us had double portions at each place!) on a Saturday afternoon.
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