Local Food Scene
You can never have too much of a good thing. Paul Qui — James Beard winning chef, Top Chef Texas winner, and, ever increasingly, trailer food magnate — has given the people what they want: more tasty Asian-inspired food served on the cheap. By going the food trailer route (you can pretty much gorge yourself for twenty bucks), Qui is feeding the masses inspired food with plastic forks. Since his upscale, signature restaurant is still a good many months away from opening, if you want to eat Paul Qui's food in the foreseeable future you'll be doing so at a picnic table in the back of a bar.
East Side King at Hole in the Wall, which opened last week, marks Qui's first brick and mortar kitchen, not to mention a genius logistical move: the only more quintessentially-Austin location to open a new ESK would be the cupola of the UT tower. With its nearly forty year history of serving up cheap drinks and live music, Hole in the Wall harkens back to Austin's first cultural boom, while Qui's addition of deep fried beets and squid ink ramen ushers in the second.
And, by bringing his food directly to UT (and offering eats to the under 21 crowd for the first time), Qui is taking up the fight against the scrounge of crappy food that will forever follow wherever college students are present.
Each ESK location sports a different menu, giving Austinites plenty of variety when it comes to Qui's signature fare. Each menu has its highlights, but the wide variety of dishes put out by these humble locations means that not all locations are created equal. So which location comes out on top? Which East Side King reigns supreme? We're all too glad to break it down for you.
4. East Side King at Shangri-La
To put it simply, the doughy buns used at a few of the ESK locations are what you imagine the food to be like in Heaven: fluffy, indulgent and utterly delicious. Every dish involving these steamed buns is a guaranteed homerun, so the inclusion of crispy chicken skin and Chinese sausage with green onions, cucumber kimchi and a sweet hoisin sauce makes this a no-brainer. Eat it, and enjoy it, for it is good.
The star at Shangri-La is the ebi ebi taco dish: tempura fried shrimp tacos with avocado, kewpie mayo, Vietnamese herbs and a sweet chili miso sauce, but you can never go wrong with pork belly. In this case, Qui goes in a more adventurous direction, pairing the fatty cut with kimchi and ponzu soaked tomatoes, making for a different flavor accompaniment than your usual pairings.
The corn-tastic ESK elotes is easily loved with its friendly flavors, but eaters should be fully aware that they're putting themselves at risk of a massive spicy mouth meltdown. Even hotter is the spicy edamame, so make sure to have a full beer on hand before indulging.
The Shangri-La menu has improved since its bun-only days, and staples like beef tongue on ginger garlic rice and fried rice balls make this trailer a surefire hit at one of East Sixth's favorite bars. But the competition is stiff in the Qui monarchy, and ESK Shangri-La takes home the last spot.
3. East Side King at Hole in the Wall
The Hole in the Wall ESK location is a welcomed addition to the drag, and the new digs are nothing if not cool. The semi-feral artist Peelander Yellow of NYC band Peelander Z did a wild job with the whimsically savage murals, and the eternally underutilized back room of the Hole in the Wall has been transformed into a mellow hangout to get unique but hearty noodles anytime day or night.
Right now, the Hole in the Wall menu is the super group of the ESK world, as it's borrowing quite a few fan favorites from the Liberty menu. Qui has pledged unique menu items for his first brick and mortar location in the future, so for now it's only fair to judge the location based on its new dishes, which just so happen to be variations on your classic bowl of ramen.
UT alumni may find it hard to believe that today's students are passing up Kerbey queso for squid ink curry ramen, but the times they are a-changin'. The dish is a knockout, coming out pitch black and with a flavor to match. Earthy, thick and packed with deep flavors, it's a surefire winter staple that will warm you up as it fills you up. At the other extreme, the Saporro beer bacon miso ramen sports an eclectic mix of strong flavors and comes topped with a floating cloud of beer foam.
Qui may be serious about food, but you can't accuse him of making serious food. Nowhere is this more evident than his chicken tortilla ramen, a mix of cuisines so odd that the dish might need a little more time to develop. Students would be remiss to skip the non-ramen offerings while available, but there's a lot more to come from Qui's first ESK kitchen with actual running water. Until then, ESK Hole in the Wall earns a proud bronze.
2. East Side King at The Grackle
With the largest menu by far of any location, the ESK within the prison-like confines of The Grackle bar goes the whole nine yards with an array of Japanese street food that easily makes it one of the best food trailers in Austin.
Buns are sidestepped for sandwiches, and the result is near perfection on bread. The bread itself, baked farther down Sixth St. at Easy Tiger, is loose and buttery like Texas toast (and comes just a hair shy of being as good as what is served at Noble Pig — that's a big compliment), making Qui's creations that much more indulgent.
If you've never had beef tongue, don't let this opportunity pass you buy, as the panko-fried, fish sauce brined tongue sando with kewpie mayo is the definition of all that is good about comfort food. Or, opt for a little foie gras on toast with chili apple jam and sink into bliss as all your worries and diet aspiration go floating away into the night.
Qui hasn't gotten to make use of a lot of fish in his trailers, but anyone who has eaten at Uchiko would know to head right to the Norwegian mackerel for a dose of subtlety and sophistication. As to sides, Qui once again makes use of his signature sweet chili miso to brighten the flavors of a melt-in-your mouth eggplant salad that, at three dollars, should be an accompaniment to any meal at the Grackle.
ESK at The Grackle is a full restaurant menu at trailer prices, and the chef recently won a James Beard award. It doesn't get a much easier sell.
1. East Side King at The Liberty
Maybe it's the sentimentality of the first ESK location. Maybe it's memories of a time when beets and Brussels sprouts were former vegetable rejects finding reincarnation. Maybe it's the fact that deep fried chicken thighs go insanely well with basil, cilantro and jalapeños. Whatever it is, the original ESK at The Liberty remains perched high on its throne as the king of the Kings.
Ordering is easy at the ESK Liberty location; all you have to do is count to five. No. 1 will start you with the Thai chicken karagee, an undeniably addictive mix of fried dark meat, palate cleansing herbs, a subtlety sweet sauce, and a kick of heat to bring out the flavors. No. 2 on the menu is the poor Qui's buns, which, essentially, is what a McRib would taste like if eaten on LSD. The fatty pork belly smothered in hoisin sauce on a doughy bun hits every indulgent note imaginable, making this an easy favorite for even the most non-adventurous palate.
No. 3 gets you a piping hot serving of deep fried roasted beets coated in a delicious blend of Japanese spices and a mayo dipping sauce that always seems to disappear too soon. No. 5 is the always-necessary accompaniment of liberty rice, but the real star of the show is Qui's Brussels sprouts, which, while nothing like the desert-like sumptuousness of his Uchiko sprouts, manage to pop with bright flavors while retaining the joys that come with being lightly fried. Austin chefs may be ready to move past the Brussels sprout craze, but let's be serious for a second: when done well, as they are at The Liberty, any talk of ditching the sprouts is simply masochistic.
With a new ESK set to open on S. Lamar next year, there's more intra-Qui competition on the horizon, but for now the ESK at The Liberty can't be beat. Here's betting that Paul Qui is going to keep trying anyway.