In Which I Talk about Jazz and, at the end, Bao Buns
Date Night at the Roxy
Like many long-married couples, the Chef and I have to make a conscious decision to spice up our lives, so we’ve decided to go out on “cheap date nights” whenever possible. Last Saturday, we went to a no-cover jazz concert by Akiko Tsuruga at The Roxy Hotel. While I am not very tolerant—to say the least—of the constant jazz music the Chef plays in our home, I do find myself bopping along to some recordings. Many of these are by Akiko, his current favorite jazz artist. In the Chef’s words, “She plays soul jazz with a 60s flavor and a strong pop influence. She has complete mastery of the organ [often a Hammond B3] and is both very strong on melodies and a highly charged improviser with a great take on standards.” At the Roxy I particularly liked her take on“Moonlight and Polka Dots.”
So, we’ve become Akiko groupies, and the affable organist smiles broadly at us when we come in or greets us with a hug between sets. Seeing her at the Roxy was a thrill, because it was a much snazzier venue than our neighborhood Harlem Bierstrasse, where we’d seen her several times before, one of a few fans there to see her play rather than the Yankees up on the multiple TV screens. I had gone up to see her on a whim, and I learned a way to deter my often reflexive negative reaction to jazz; I “get it” when I watch in person. I love to observe the silent communication between the musicians, how Akiko signals to the trumpeter, with a simple nod, and he will screw up his mouth in what looks like an angry frown, press the brass instrument to his lips and let out the most muted, delicate notes that float towards the sky like fragile iridescent bubbles. I like to see Akiko, in the final moments of a really rollicking tune, sweep her forearm with a flourish across the organ keys. Or the drummer, in a soft number like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” will pick up the signal to sweep the wire brushes in lazy circles around the drum head.
At the Roxy we sat on comfy leather couches across from a gargantuan elderly man who ordered a plate of 16 pigs in a blanket ($16) to share with his friend. I watched him hungrily as he delicately popped each swaddled piglet into his mouth. I envied him that trifecta of satisfaction: booze, music, food. But the cheapest item on the Roxy menu was a $9.00 [!] order of fries. I had just come from working a booth for the Editorial Freelancers Association at the Writers Digest conference and I was famished—the ubiquitous cubes of Munster cheese and raw pepper strips with prepared green dressing just didn’t do it for me. As Richard prepared to stay on for Akiko’s next set (I’m a fan, but I have limits), I took myself to the newest Smorgasburg location, Smorgas Square, on Canal and Varick, and ordered the cheapest item that would satisfy: a Peking duck bao bun from C Bao.
Are Gua Bao the New Tacos??
Gua Bao are a Taiwanese snack food, but now you can find them everywhere in New York City—from David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which introduced the signature buns with fat slabs of pork belly and quick pickled cukes to the city in 2009, to BauHaus, the restaurant that put outspoken Taiwanese lawyer-cum-chef Eddie Huang, and brother Evan, on the culinary map. Chang once said, "I've always said we wouldn't be where we are today if not for the pork bun...It's a dish that's synonymous with Momofuku." Then there’s the scruffy little C Bao stand that served me a bao smothered in way too much Hoisin, and there's a Kaya bun stand next to the main branch of the public library. Since Chang introduced New Yorkers to bao buns, they are handed out of food carts and a standard on the appetizer menus of Japanese ramen shops. In fact, the best bao bun I ever had was from now defunct Yasha Ramen, and I’ve memorialized it in my @nycscnackattack instagram photo. The bright white fluffy yeast bread bun enclosed the tenderest fatty pork, sliced cucumber, and a dab of Hoisin. Yasha served them for the bargain basement price of $5.00/2, but sitting at the bar eating them and penning a draft for one of these blog posts, I wrote, “Eating at the bar at Yasha, there are always very few customers. I have the sad feeling they will close before they get their liquor license,” which, did, indeed come to pass.
Still, I live sandwiched between the flagship Jin Ramen in Harlem and its second outpost at Amsterdam and 81st Street. Jin’s Japanese translation of this Taiwanese snack was strikingly like Yasha's and the price point is not bad, $8.00/2 with a side of refreshing coleslaw. These bao buns have the requisite pork slabs, razor sliced scallions and butter lettuce, sesame seeds and a spritz of spicy mayo. The Japanese love their Kewpie mayo, and I love it, too. While I will always choose a minimalist bao, Baohaus has some wild sounding combos you might like to try--like the "Uncle Jesse Bao," ($3.55) organic fried tofu served with Haus Seasoning Salt, crushed peanuts, Taiwanese red sugar, cilantro, and Haus Sauce. Huang says the brothers "tore down everything people knew about Taiwanese-Chinese food and rebuilt it from the ground up." Like jazz artists, the best New York City gua bao gurus will continue to take a standard and make it their own.
3183 Broadway (near 125th)
238 E. 14th St. (near 2nd Ave.)
Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Avenue (near E. 10th St.)
The Roxy Hotel
2 6th Avenue (near Walker St.)