Myung In Wins Pillow Fight
You may have eaten bao, the pillowy white Chinese buns usually found three to a basket at dim sum. You may have even ventured to Buena Park’s Mami King for the Filipino version called siopao, or to Little Saigon’s food-to-go shops at which they’re wrapped in cellophane and go by the name banh bao. But have you had the wang mandoo at Myung In?
At first glance, this Korean rendition of the steamed bun would seem like the others. It’s only when you notice the man making them right behind the cash register of this food-court stall that you realize these will be something special.
His only tool is a slender spatula used to scoop up a meat mixture from a giant metal bowl. He spreads it onto a flat round of dough he holds in his palm. With the other hand, he coaxes the pliable disc up the sides to envelop the ball of filling.
Nimble fingers pleat the loose edges to form a spiral. A final crimp seals the top, and one tiny belly-button hole at the summit is left as a vent. He repeats the process with the next bun . . . and the one after that. On a tray, you see those he already finished before you got there, each identical and placed in neat rows.
Through a window behind him, you spy his co-workers working just as busily. One wields a knife as large as a machete, chopping a gigantic head of napa cabbage into bits. Another worker tends to a refrigerator-sized steamer. He opens it, and a plume of steam rushes out to fog up the glass.
All that labor, all that meticulous molding and coddling, and finally, the final product is brought to you: a steamed bun so fresh it can’t be handled for the better part of two minutes. They serve four to an order simply on a plain plate. A garlic-spiked bowl of pickled cucumbers, jalapeño and daikon steeped in soy comes on the side. You nibble on the pickles, which are meant to be palate cleansers, biding your time until the buns are cool enough to touch.
Your patience runs out, and you bite into one. It’s still scorching, so you do a little dance with your tongue to cool off the part you have in your mouth. Meanwhile, steam billows furiously from where you bit. Inside, a torrent of chives, minced pork and cabbage waits to spill out, perfumed by the scent of toasted-sesame oil.
But it’s the dough you marvel over. Moist but not damp, there’s a lightness to it, an airy puffiness akin to a cloud. This is as perfect a texture as you’ve ever had—proof that when it comes to bread, whether oven-baked or steamed, freshness makes all the difference.
Another thing you notice: The buns are enormous. The girth is equal to a Big Mac—easily twice the size you’re accustomed to at dim sum. One will be enough for a light lunch. Eat all four, and you might as well go home to sleep off the rest of the afternoon.
Better yet, you should bring a friend next time because there are other buns to try. Some are stuffed with kimchi and pork. There’s one filled with a vegetable hash loosely bound with tofu, clear noodles, zucchini and onions. It’s easy to tell this one apart: Look for the football shape with straight pleats, like ridges on a Klingon’s forehead.
The bun with a smooth hemispherical dome, on the other hand, hides a sugary red-bean paste. Save this one for dessert.
Of course, Myung In also does dumplings. A few will remind you of gyoza or pot stickers because that’s what they are. An order gives you 10 bite-sized morsels, each with crispy, golden-brown bottoms facing up and ready for dipping in a chili-amped soy sauce. Another option has them plainly boiled so the sheer noodle skins cling to the minced-meat filling like lumpy sacks. And yet another variation has them steamed, with wonton wrappers shrunk around stogies of shrimp and pork.
In the unlikely event you’re still hungry after the wang mandoo or the dumplings, a large bowl of seafood noodle soup as thick as porridge will fill up any parts of your stomach left unclaimed. The broth is starchy even before they put the knife-cut noodles into it.
But only the lucky will get to try Myung In’s shrimp purses, called shao mai, or the small versions of the wang mandoo. More often than not, almost half of the menu will be unavailable, with the latter two as constant no-shows. And when you ask when Myung In might be making them, a woman will answer with a simple “not today.” You make a note to yourself to bring more friends tomorrow, just in case.
Myung In Dumplings, inside H-Mart, 8911 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste. 3, Garden Grove, (714) 638-4009. Call for hours. Items, $7-$14 each.
This review appeared in print as "Hot Buns: Myung In wins the pillow fight of Asian steamed buns."
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