500 Tacos: East Side King South Lamar

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
East Side King South Lamar
2310 S. Lamar Blvd. (map), 512-383-8382, www.eskaustin.com/south-lamar/
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm Sat, 11am-9pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.05.15
Rain pooling on the patio behind East Side King on South Lamar reminded me of my first night at ESK five years ago, at the truck in the flooding courtyard of the Liberty on East Sixth. There were pork belly steam buns and fried beets and chicken karaage — all of it shiny and new and exotic. Paul Qui was there that night, the chef who went on to Uchiko then his own place, Qui. That was the first of what’s become an ESK empire of three trucks and two restaurants. The shining glow has softened, but this brick-and-mortar East Side King still has something new to say — even about an old standby like the taco.
Taco A: Tako Taco
For novelty, for show and for taste, it’s hard to hold anything against this octopus taco. It would be easy to dismiss it as a stunt, something to sell Japanese street fusion as a neon taqueria. Only the crispy corn tortilla shell identifies this as a taco, but the key ingredient (Qui ingredient?) is soft and sweet octopus, poached in butter and sliced in elegant ribbons of pearl white gilded with coral red. It’s carried in a corn tortilla fried like a half-shell, filled first with a tart chop of pickled vegetables, dominated by cucumber and onion, then the octopus, then a sprinkle of tiny golden fish eggs like sea salt. Where the taco illusion falls apart is when it’s time to bring that delicate shell and its elegant payload to your neither elegant nor delicate mouth. To get a big enough bite to capture all the elements calls for unhinging the jaw. Smaller bites shatter the shell, and ceviche falls out, followed by fish eggs and the long white octopus ribbon caught like toilet paper stuck to a stiletto. Instead, I break my shell at the edges, using the pieces to dip like tostones into this beachside cocktail.  ($3.75)
Taco B: Ebi Ebi
For all its careful composition — fried shrimp, spicy mayo, herb salad, avocado — this taco suffers the sins of poor frying, arriving soft and pale on the outside, with its small shrimp mealy inside. Fried shrimp steam buns from the long-gone East Side King at Shangri-La — a trailer, no less — had the better idea: tail-on shrimp pulled tall and straight before a proper deep frying. ($3.75)
Taco C: Spicy chicken
This is the taco that will taste the most familiar not only to taqueria fans, but to followers of East Side King as well. For the taqueria-phile, the chicken has the familiar spice glow of achiote, the glimmer of avocado and the soft corn bite of a tortilla. For the ESK fan, there’s the big basil payoff and an undercurrent of crunchy bits of chicken skin. Being a fan of both styles, I’d add only that I wish there a little more of everything, especially the crispy skin, like fried chicken Baco-Bits. ($2.95)
Taco D: Mushroom
For less than $3, there is no reason to expect the tailfeathers and headdresses of wild mushrooms to show up in a taco. But there they are, in a bouncy tangle of loamy flavor, surrounded by another unlikely mate, the alarmingly alien and deliciously down to earth corn smut called huitlacoche. They provide solid ground for creamy avocado, funky cotija cheese and the more liberated spark of pickled cactus and peppers. Among the best boutique ingredient values of this 500 Tacos series. ($2.95)
 Tortilla: Ultimately, the tortilla is the least important element of any of these tacos. It’s treated as such, with service-grade white corn. Nothing is especially hurt by it, but all these tacos would be 50 percent better with a more carefully considered — and handmade — tortilla.
 Salsa: Soy and sriracha are the salsas of street fusion. But ESK also carries a sweet-and-spicy fish sauce, a blended tomatillo-lime salsa and Mama Park’s Gochujang, the same fermented soybean and sweet red chili sauce that was the fried shrimp’s only saving grace.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)