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Nick's Picks: The perfect flavors of Han Noodle's steamed buns

In an essay for Wired, restaurateur David Chang describes a perfect flavor as one that “makes you very aware of what you’re eating and your own reaction to it. It nags at you and it keeps you in the moment, thinking about what you’re tasting. And that’s what makes it delicious.” Ringer staff writer Danny Chau used Chang’s quote as a preface for his recent article about certain tastes and their ability to become ingrained into one’s memory. Chau’s article got me thinking. What specific local flavors are so intense, so profound, that they become unforgettable?

At Han Noodle Bar, several dishes like Szechuan fish, which traditionally calls for a half pound of hot peppers and a quarter pound of Szechuan peppercorns in its base, are meant to assault taste buds. Han’s diced chicken steamed buns, though, are meant to coddle them.

Since its opening in 2011, steamed buns have been a staple on Han’s menu, which, according to part owner Tony Ko, is a mix of authentic, traditional Chinese and Westernized Chinese cuisine. Steamed buns, as Ko explains, fall under the authentic side of the menu. They are a snack that might be prepared at home or by a street vendor in China.

What makes Han’s steamed buns special is not any one flavor but a combination of many that starts with the bun itself. The buns, made from wheat, are impossibly puffy and retain their pillowy form long after they have been steamed. The light airiness of the bun makes it the perfect vehicle for any one of the available fillings. Aside from diced chicken, Han also offers braised beef, pork belly, mushrooms, and tofu. While diced chicken is currently Han’s second most popular dish, behind only the pork belly steamed bun, it did not start out as a customer favorite.

“Chicken is always hard to do,” says Ko. “You can do great things with fish, pork, and beef, but who gets excited about chicken? We had to do something to make it exciting.”

Ko tried grilled chicken, braised chicken, and several different sauces before landing on the current form. Now, he starts with bite-sized chunks of dark meat, marinated in simple seasonings like salt, pepper, and rice wine. The chicken is then covered in cornstarch, which Ko explains is a lighter alternative to flour, and then flash fried until crisp and tender. After that, this traditionally Chinese dish takes a Korean turn with the addition of gochujang. This thick, pungent Korean sauce, primarily made with red chili powder, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt, is cut with rice wine and then tossed with the chicken to create, a sweet, savory, spicy flavor.

The chicken is then laid on a bun, which, after steaming, is coated with hoisin, a sweet and salty sauce made from soybeans, fennel seeds, red chilies, and garlic. Chopped scallions, shallots, and peanuts are then added to the mix as a finishing touch. The result of all that goes into Han’s diced chicken steamed bun is a beautiful contradiction. Any given bite into this delicacy provides something that is soft but crunchy, sweet but savory, calming but spicy.

If there is such thing as a perfect flavor, it is available at Han Noodle for $4.50.

Follow Nick’s Picks on Twitter at @NickAbreu585.

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