It all began with a typo. New York Times media columnist David Carr had been “doing some slimy self-promotion on Facebook” for the hardcover release of his memoir about addiction, The Night of the Gun, when he accidentally advertised “The Night of the Bun.” Among the friends who logged on to poke fun at him, Carr sensed a genuine hunger. For pork buns. For nearly a year, the typo haunted Carr, who considers pork buns a near-perfect food. “They’re starch and carbs and sugar and meat and something you can eat with a single hand,” he told us. “Plus Chinese barbecued pork has that unusual sort of candy color to it. I’ve eaten a lot of it since I came to New York.” Cut to the book’s paperback release last week. Carr didn’t think it was appropriate to throw a grand party — “Nobody’s getting rich selling books or making newspapers” — but he thought his colleagues could use a little revelry, and set about planning something very low-budget. He got Chilean wine and Heineken from Costco, and a party space from a friend. As for the food, there was only one possibility: an actual Night of the Bun.
Carr’s wife, Jill, did web research and collected pork-bun suggestions from a pal — New Wonton Garden, Fay Da Bakery, Excellent Dumpling House, Grand Sichuan — and they picked Mothers’ Day for an epic taste test with their daughter Maddie. Using his Twitter, Carr tracked their progress and solicited suggestions. Rachel Sterne of GroundReport.com wrote in telling them to try Dim Sum Go Go. Doree Shafrir (late of the Observer) and Katherine Goldstein (of the Huffington Post) suggested Mei Li Wah Coffee House. “I’d say we sampled over twenty in all,” said Carr.
“I’m kind of a pork-bun traditionalist, so anything jazzy or gimmicky wasn’t going to make it,” Carr said. “There were some that the filling seemed, I don’t know, a little strange. I like my barbecued pork to taste like barbecued pork.” In the end, Grand Sichuan on Ninth Avenue won out for proximity to the event location, manufacturing capacity, and “heartiest innards.” “They seemed very durable,” said Carr, “and they were a good size. They were kind of the Big Mac of pork buns. Very large. It was weird. They didn’t seem one bit surprised. I thought it would be fun to say ‘We need 200 pork buns’ and watch their reaction. I said that, and they said, ‘Okay, what else?’”
At the party, though, Carr needed constant reassurance that he’d chosen correctly. “I wondered if in certain parts and certain batches, they were a little doughy,” he confessed. “You want a good portion of meat evenly distributed throughout the bun. You don’t want to take a bite and get all dough. But I liked their pork buns and I’m not about to complain. Grand Sichuan isn’t really known for their warm service. I don’t want to antagonize them further.” And his guests weren’t complaining, either: “More than a few people left with pork buns in their pockets.”
When we spoke to Carr via phone the next day, he had his eye on a different kind of “reddish meat with bread-y stuff.” “I’m in Chicago,” he said, “so as soon as I get off the phone with you, I’m getting a Vienna beef Chicago-style hot dog, because hot dogs in New York are atrocious. I’d be happy to eat another pork bun right now, but in Chicago there’s really no reason. I think of the pork bun as New York’s iconic food.”