“Chicken tenders aren’t on the room-service menu,” Momofuku chef David Chang says incredulously, surveying the gigantic in-room dining spread in a penthouse at the Cosmopolitan. There are tomahawk steaks, waffles, burgers, crab legs and so much more in front of him, but Chang is less interested in all that. The chef, smiling widely, grabs a tender and is informed that, yes, they are in fact on the menu. “Are they for kids?” he asks. No, they’re on the regular menu. “I didn’t know that,” Chang says. He’s stayed at the Cosmopolitan more than 20 times since it opened six years ago, but somehow missed this vital piece of information. “I f*cking love chicken tenders.”
Chang, who’s about to open his biggest Momofuku, a restaurant expected to have about 200 seats when it debuts here in January, knows better than anyone how to balance elegant dining with everyday comfort food. He gets that casino restaurants are where customers blow vacation budgets and expense accounts, where visitors order the priciest things because why not. But he also wants guests to be able to come in and eat for $20 at Momofuku, which might only be the most anticipated Vegas restaurant ever.
Chang is a singular culinary force who has been dropping umami bombs since opening New York’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004. He’s an indie-leaning chef who has married Asian flavors, classic French technique and American swagger while taking destination dining in a decidedly rambunctious direction. Yes, he has earned Michelin stars and James Beard Awards and Time 100 recognition. But he’s also a mass-culture superstar who, despite limited TV appearances, has more Instagram followers than Food Network regulars like Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri.
Chang’s empire has expanded to Sydney, Toronto and Washington, D.C., but Vegas will be his first foray to the Western United States. Casino insiders have been buzzing about the possibility of Chang coming to the Las Vegas Strip for years, but the strong-willed chef took his time working out the right deal—and he’s been thinking deeply about what he wants his restaurant here to be.
Chang won’t have tablecloths and has no plans for a fine-dining tasting counter at Cosmo. He’ll have an open kitchen and expects to serve chicken sandwiches, like he does at his Fuku fast-casual restaurant in Manhattan. As of now, he isn’t putting a burger on the menu. He has discussed house-cured baloney sandwiches with his staff.
“I love griddled fried baloney sandwiches; they’re delicious,” Chang says. “I don’t think there’s anything simple about it. Wilensky’s [Light Lunch counter] in Montreal is one of my favorite places in the world.”
Momofuku Vegas will serve some of Chang’s most popular New York dishes like ramen—with which he first made his name at Noodle Bar—and a version of the large-format bo ssam (pork shoulder) that’s a crowd-pleasing sensation at Momofuku Ssam Bar. Fried chicken with caviar is coming, too. And on the November day I meet up with Chang at the Cosmopolitan, he’s been talking to his crew about whether fried chicken should be a starter, an entrée or a large-format item.
“What I’ve learned after being fortunate enough to open up restaurants in different places is not to assume what works in New York works anywhere else,” Chang says. “That’s why I’m not sure exactly what the hell is going to work and what’s not [here].”
He’s ready to indulge baller tendencies in Vegas. If he can get away with it, he’d love to serve a wheel of époisses with a half-kilo of caviar. The way he sees it, the ultra-stinky cheese and the fish eggs would be a rarefied form of surf and turf. “But I don’t know if people would buy that. No one wants to eat like that in New York, anyway.”
But he’s in Vegas, in his grandest setting yet, so why not play around a bit until he gets things right? “In this city, there’s been a lot of promises. I’m not trying to promise anything other than, like, we’re going to figure it out. We’re not going to stop until we figure it out.”
Chang doesn’t want to reveal too much about his menu, because everything is subject to change and will keep evolving well after opening day. But overall, “I think we have to have something that’s a little more celebratory,” he says. He’s thinking about “more festive” seafood dishes and says his “big regret” at the moment is not getting a live fish tank. But those could arrive in the future. “Just to do one dish,” Chang says, laughing.
He knows he’s making his crew nervous with a menu they’re telling him needs heavy editing. He won’t say how big the menu is, but, “I’ll tell you this right now: Everybody wants me to make the menu smaller.”
Lately, he’s been obsessing over the salt-and-pepper crab and lobster he ate at a restaurant called Fishman Lobster Clubhouse in Toronto. “It’s even better than Hong Kong,” he says. “They’ve incorporated some weird Ontario things like local fried tiny smelt tossed with it.”
A twist like that speaks to Chang, who enjoys riffing on traditional dishes and experimenting with premium ingredients. He’s planning to mess around with Cantonese-style lobster. He’s thinking about how to serve langoustines, a huge plate of which he recently Instagrammed when he visited his friends at Carbone at Aria. “To me, the langoustine presentation would be beautiful with a great ginger scallion sauce,” Chang says. “Cut lengthwise, a beautiful julienne of everything that’s been lightly steamed. You know it’s not going to be bad.”
He’ll have a rotisserie at his new Momofuku, which he might use for gorgeous prime rib that turns into sandwich meat. (He also has a guéridon that could be a carving station.)
“I love restaurants that do prime rib, and it’s even better if you don’t sell it,” Chang says. “It makes the best sandwiches. It’s actually better as a sandwich then as a prime rib, I think. Visually, in its entirety, like the whole 109 cut, it’s beautiful. But it’s just perfect for sandwiches. What we’ve been trying to figure out is how an item of food can be something else, too. It can be as beautiful as a whole roasted prime rib or a French dip sandwich, which is one of my favorite things in the world.”
Chang has been spending a fair amount of time in LA, where old-school, hyper-casual French dip restaurant Philippe is among his go-to spots. And LA influences—like its produce and a Koreatown Chang adores—will no doubt impact the Vegas Momofuku.
“In LA, I can get access to some of the best tomatoes in December,” Chang says. “We’ve had an internal debate about serving things [in Vegas] that are traditionally out of season. On the West Coast, nothing’s really ever out of season. And that’s f*cking with my head a little bit. We want to support all the farmers. We get access to stuff in California that we’ve never had before. That’s very, very exciting.”
Chang will be able to try so many things he hasn’t done before, but he also understands that a Vegas restaurant is where, sometimes, you should shut up and play the hits.
“Hopefully, if you’ve eaten at Momofuku or you’ve heard about it, you’re going to go to Vegas and you can get a dish that somebody’s raved about,” Chang says. “Simultaneously, there’s going to be stuff that’s constantly changing. Trying to find that balance is going to be hard.”
He’ll have a soup section on the menu that could skew heavily Korean. “I know that one thing we’re going to bring back is like a large-format kimchi stew, kimchi jjigae, because whenever I’m here, that’s what I want to eat.”
Chang also really likes galbijjim, a braised short-rib stew. He eats it often at LA’s Sun Nong Dan, and his mom also has a great recipe for it. The dish has potential to be a large-format attraction at the Vegas Momofuku.
“It’s a debate,” Chang says. “Because if you do four or five pounds of braised galbijjim, that’s a very expensive dish. I don’t know if that fits. I’m still trying to figure that out. … It’s really home cooking.”
But perhaps adventurous diners will see the menu and notice dishes like a short-rib stew, oxtail soup (gomtang) or pork-neck stew (gamjatang) and order them to try something different.
“That’s my hope,” Chang says. “I want to serve a gamjatang, but I’m not sure. I want to serve oxtail soup. It’s delicious. I don’t know if people want to eat gomtang.”
Not having all the answers is part of the fun. “What is exciting right now is there is actually a tremendous amount of possibility,” Chang says. “The future is completely unwritten, and this is the best part of a restaurant. It’s intoxicating.”
What he’s going after is something intangible. “What I want is that feeling of, like, this is great,” says Chang, adding that what matters most is how customers depart Momofuku. “We hope that they’re leaving like, ‘That was amazing; this was the highlight of my trip, even though it wasn’t supposed to be.’”
Chang has felt that way as a guest at high-end spots, but also at Palace Station’s Oyster Bar, marveling at spicy pan roasts served by a friendly chef chatting with his customers at the counter.
“He’s talking to you, he has the best stories,” Chang says. “That’s one way of leaving extraordinarily happy. There are many ways. For a long time growing up in this business, you’re taught there’s only one way.”
Therein lies the degree of difficulty for Chang. In the restaurant business, you can make people ecstatic for $20 or $1,000. Chang just happens to be the dude trying to do both in the same restaurant. “I am that guy,” he says. “I love chicken tenders, but I also f*cking love époisses with caviar.”
I have a feeling he’s going to like having a restaurant in Vegas.