You've Come a Long Way, Baby
East Side King has gone from a backyard trailer to street-food empire in five short years
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., April 11, 2014
Folks are often asked, when confronted with concerns about their future, what their five-year plan is. Well, it's been nearly five years since Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya started moonlighting from their Uchi gigs, operating their Asian-fusion, street-food-focused East Side King in the backyard of the Liberty on East Sixth. In the ensuing time, Qui took the helm at Uchiko and became a lauded celebrity chef while at the same time starting his own restaurant and continually expanding ESK. Then came ESK's first brick-and-mortar location at the Hole in the Wall, followed a little over a year later by a new space on South Lamar.
This location does a good job of reinforcing the established ESK brand, from the friendly counter service to the gonzo artwork by punk rock painter Peelander Yellow. The menu boasts ESK "classics," the dishes that made the original trailer famous: Poor Qui's pork belly buns, beet home fries, chicken karaage, and brussels sprouts salad.
My two favorites from this portion of the menu are the beet home fries and the chicken karaage, probably because they are a study in sophisticated simplicity. Roasted beets are lightly breaded, the earthy root vegetables seared to tenderness and ready to be dipped in the accompanying cup of Japanese mayonnaise. While the beets are still hot, the mayonnaise melts a bit, providing a decadent umami finish. They are, simply put, soul-satisfyingly basic. In the hands of the cooks at ESK South Lamar, the chicken karaage, breaded and fried chicken thigh meat tossed in a savory-sweet dressing and garnished with onions, mint, basil, jalapeño, and cilantro, is a perfect balance of flavors every single time.
By contrast, the veggie meshi, a half-serving each of brussels sprouts salad and Liberty rice, is a brightly colored, spicy-sweet tangle of red cabbage, fried brussels sprouts, basil, mint, cilantro, and jalapeños served alongside steamed, seasoned jasmine rice. Previous encounters with this dish elsewhere have been quite enjoyable, but at South Lamar the mojo wasn't quite there. The brussels sprouts got lost in the cacophony of onions and cilantro while the rice was just a dull, sticky blob in the dish.
Part of the ESK "gimmick," for lack of a better word, is that each outlet has its own specialty. The Liberty has buns and "classics," Hole in the Wall specializes in fusion ramen, and recently opened Thai-Kun on East Sixth focuses on innovative Thai mash-ups curated by Thai Changthong (formerly of the late, lamented Spin Modern Thai). As such, the specialty of the house at ESK South Lamar are the team's interpretations of tacos, of which there are five. The ebi ebi taco features four tail-on shrimp bathed in a mildly spicy-sweet gochujang sauce and snuggled up inside a steamed moo shu wrap (a thin, tortilla-like pancake that accompanies Americanized moo shu dishes) with avocado, cabbage, and herbs. It's not a tidy bite, but it manages to be both light and satisfying. The spicy chicken taco boasts a pleasant chargrilled flavor along with added crunch from cabbage and crispy chicken skin.
Two tacos challenge the eater to venture out of his or her comfort zone. The success of the tako (octopus) taco hinges entirely on the individual diner's taste. For some, the tentacles and easily identified suction cups might be a little too visceral. Others might love the fishy minerality of the tender, butter-poached octopus heaped on a generous portion of escabeche vegetables, loaded into a virtual barge of a fried moo shu wrap. The menu's sole vegetarian taco is the mochi, featuring orbs of sweet sticky rice cake adorned with pickled beets and other crunchy veggies and a slightly hot yuzukosho salsa. It's chewy and strange and delicious – definitely worth trying.
Over the course of five years, Paul Qui — with some help from his friends — has established himself as one of the most daring chefs working in Austin today. While what he's doing at Qui may not be accessible to everyone, what he and Utsunomiya offer at East Side King largely is. I look forward to seeing what the next five years bring.