Blame David Chang for Buns and Ramen Taking Over Buenos Aires

David Chang has a long reach in Argentina, where chefs and diners alike have been swept away by his refined-but-casual take on Asian cuisine at his Momofuku restaurants.

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May 11 2016, 6:00pm

Our server kindly runs through the five different varieties of ramen on the menu. Picante—spicy—is all I need to hear and I grunt out a loud "that one" without paying attention to any of the other words coming from her mouth. It probably comes off as dismissive, but when you hear that word in Buenos Aires, a city of mostly Italian ancestry that prefers tamely salty flavors and runs in stampedes from spice, you say yes and hope for the best.

Fukuro Noodle Bar is my favorite spot to grab ramen. It is one of the only spots in Buenos Aires for noodles, but the sentiment is all the same. The old-school, traditional Japanese restaurants that dot the middle class Congreso neighborhood, where a small but thriving community resides, focus mostly on sushi and dishes with universally familiar names—teriyaki this and tempura that. There you will most definitely not find Japanese dishes fused with their Chinese or Korean neighbors.

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Ramen at Fukuro Noodle Bar. All photos by the author.

But Fukuro owner Vanessa Camozzi is different, and it is probably because she is an American by way of Puerto Rico who cooks East Asian food in Argentina with her Buenos Aires-born husband. It is an international food perspective that until recently was a foreign philosophy in the Buenos Aires dining scene, but a new generation is beginning to challenge the status quo. Curious cooks and diners alike travel often (particularly to the United States), seek out unfamiliar foods, and are prompting a new style of cooking that deviates from heavily Italian-influenced flavors and moves toward a globalized palate that mixes foreign dishes with locally available ingredients.

The two bamboo steamers are brought from the open kitchen with our appetizers: six "piggy style" gyoza drenched in a caramel jalapeño salsa and two fluffy bao buns called the "K-pop"—pork belly and smoked kimchi topped with fresh popcorn. The crunchy kimchi has an air of a smoky chipotle that mixes with the freshly steamed buns for a flavor experience not easily paralleled in Buenos Aires. The karai ramen quickly follows. It is served in an enormous white bowl that has to be carried out with two hands and leaves a billowing trail of steam in its wake. The mushroom broth stews for 20 hours, and is topped with thin slices of chashu and alkaline noodles that are cooked daily.

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Vanessa Camozzi at Fukuro.

I first started hearing Buenos Aires' cooks drop David Chang's name about a year ago. I spotted the Momofuku cookbook at Alo's, a small bistro in the suburbs whose farm-to-table philosophy shares more with elBulli's high-end plate presentation than Chang's signature bastardization of East Asian comfort foods.

Dante Franco, of the artisanal hot dog shop Diggs, cited a visit to Momofuku Noodle Bar as a turning point: "I suddenly realized you could serve street food in a gourmet setting."

Newly minted El Quinto offers up a smorgasbord of Japanese dumplings, Taiwanese buns, pad thai, and concept cocktails like The Full Moon—rum and coconut milk—served in a teapot by a waiter in an all white getup and black tie. The interior of El Quinto is like stepping into Noodle Bar, except the exposed wood walls have been swapped for Buenos Aires' obsession with white marble.

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"Piggy Style" buns at Fukuro.

Camozzi also lists Chang among her inspirations for the restaurant, but mostly for his bravado. "He was this enigma that pushed all the boundaries," she says. The idea to open a ramen bar came to her during a trip to Japan. A journalist by trade, she was chasing a story in Taiji (which would later become the setting for the documentary The Cove) with her husband Matias, where the pair fell in love with the neighborhood ramen bars they frequented, the soup's complicated technique, and the strict attention to presentation. The two had been working in the restaurant business in DC for years, and not wanting to be indebted to investors in the US, decided to move to Buenos Aires instead.

When they entered the scene in 2013, they were a complete anomaly. "No one knew what our cuisine was, but they knew about Noodle Bar. People would walk in and be like, 'Hey, Momofuku!' The restaurant looks nothing like Momofuku, but Chang validated us, so we took it," recalls Camozzi. The more people I sat down with, the steadier I began to cast doubt on my hypothesis—it isn't the chefs who are drawing inspiration from Chang's cooking, but a public that wants to feel part of the global food movement that has been led in part by Chang.

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A rum and coconut milk cocktail at El Quinto.

Middle- and upper-class porteños travel often to the East Coast. Two direct flights to New York City fly out of Buenos Aires daily, and the American consulate in Buenos Aires ranks number three behind Beijing and Guangzhou for the highest amount of approved visas. According to Argentina's International Tourism Survey, Argentine travel abroad started to spike in 2013 when local inflation made it cheaper to travel abroad than to vacation in Argentina—one of the most popular destinations was New York. "Porteños love New York because it is a city where so much happens. Obviously, the food there is exciting, too," explains Marina Ponzi, cofounder of the Buenos Aires Food Week.

Locals are absorbing everything they see, eat, and purchase abroad and are reinterpreting it in the streets of Buenos Aires. A collective hard-on for the world capital can be seen when you walk past the trendy boutiques, galleries, and bistros that line the streets of Palermo Soho, an area that was a middle-class neighborhood a little more than a decade ago but is now a culture hub for everything new and trendy.

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Sandwiches served on Chinese-style steamed buns at La Mar Cebicheria.

"Argentina isn't like other places in Latin America that inherited other traditions, but food in Buenos Aires is changing. Social media and traveling has changed everything about the way [locals] perceive food," continues Ponzi.

America's obsession with food culture is one of the most visible imports. Reality cooking shows like Masterchef are among local television's highest-rated shows. The recent debut of Dueños de la cocina, a reality show competition in search of the country's next great restaurateur, led its Sunday time slot. On Netflix, which arrived to Argentina in 2011 and is used by close to half the country, Chef's Table is the highest-rated documentary, and Chang's first season of Mind of a Chef doesn't fall too far behind.

On the enormous two-page menu filled with ceviches, tiraditos, causas, and whole fried fish at Gastón Acurio's La Mar Cebicheria, there is a small entry for sanguichitos—a reinterpretation of the min pao brought to Peru by Chinese immigrants whose arrival to Peru dates all the way back to Spanish colonization. The little sandwiches are served on steamed buns and stuffed with ingredients like crispy chicharrón, sole chorizo, or fried shrimp and drowned in salsa with the characteristic Peruvian flavor profile—creamy queso fresco, minty huacatay, cilantro, and a touch of chile and lime.

"Chang made buns popular around the world. A lot of people have copied him, and a lot of the people that order these think it is a copy of something we found in New York," explains head chef Anthony Vazquez, "But this is pure Peruvian street food. The min pao bun is just the excuse for us to play with these flavors."

Although bao is currently the most visible new trend, it is representative of a general curiosity shift towards Pan Asian flavors. Sunae Asian Cantina maybe the most successful example.

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Noodles at Sunae Asian Cantina.

After running a successful restaurant out of her own home for nearly seven years, Christina Sunae set up her first brick-and-mortar in late December. During her nearly decade-long run as the owner of a closed-door restaurant—similar to a Cuban paladar—Sunae went from running a single dinner a week to becoming a local food celebrity in her own right, appearing on television and penning a successful cookbook.

Her restaurant draws from a childhood spent in the Philippines and Japan before ultimately settling in Tennessee. She ended up in New York, where she worked at Kin Kao and lived just two blocks from Momofuku Noodle Bar. "Chang's food doesn't have an influence over my own because I'm Asian. I grew up with this food," Sunae says unabashedly. The most they share in common is a love for hip-hop and a penchant for saying "fuck." "But [with] his business, he does what he wants and he's built an empire. That inspires everyone."

And Chang's influence has certainly helped bridge the gap. On a Thursday night at Cantina, the upper echelon of diners serve as testament to the quick acceptance of buns and otherwise casual Asian food in a high-end setting. Seated at the dozen tables is the Turkish ambassador, local celebrity YouTube chef Felicitas Pizzaro, and an owner of iLatina—one of the city's most celebrated restaurants.

After I finish off the pork buns—a traditional recipe lifted from her own family cookbook and source of pride for Sunae—she serves me roti smothered in sticky condensed milk and a bowl of yellow pumpkin curry. "The Malaysian ambassador told me this was better than what he gets in Malaysia," she tells me as she drops the plate off and skips off to talk to the ambassador and his wife. "Eat it with your hands."