500 Tacos: Qui
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 02.20.15
It’s a testament to Paul Qui’s ingenuity — and growing up as a kid in Houston — that he’s figured out a way to break off a piece of the Qui restaurant experience at a more street-friendly price. A couple dishes and a drink, and you’re out for around $25. It’s called pulutan, a kind of Filipino icehouse experience in the bar and on the patio, with robust bar food like crispy pig’s head (sisig), peanut curry, kabobs from the Big Green Egg, even the Filipino pig’s blood stew called dinuguan that has become a signature dish for Qui, all for $4-12 each. Less of a signature are lumpia tacos, loosely named after the eggroll-style snacks more commonly rolled and deep-fried than folded over like a soft taco like they are at Qui. The pulutan menu is served on the patio throughout the evening, a kind of pre-party for the $65-a-person fixed menu inside.
The taco: Kanpachi lumpia
Raw amberjack — kanpachi — is a beautiful fish, with scales the color of ancient pack ice and opal flesh that runs coral along the edge. Cooked hard and folded into a bar taco, it’s still good protein, even if it loses some of its seaborne splendor. Like chicken of the sea, without the canned tuna connotations. The taco made from it is an untethered mess, spilling julienned green mango and carrots from both ends of its limp, omelette-like shell (limpia?), carried along by the sticky sweet one-two of soy caramel and caramelized onions. It’s as much a crepe as a taco, more suited to knife and fork than a free hand. ($4)
► The best $10 you can spend at Qui: If this weren’t a taco series, sisig would have gotten top billing in this post, because it’s much better than the underdeveloped lumpia tacos as an introduction to this 4-star restaurant. It's a hot stone bowl of crispy, salty, fatty, shredded pork over garlic rice, covered by a fried egg and onions. Break the yolk and stir it in like Korean bibimbap.
► Lumpia-rama: Little dried shrimps give crispy chunks of pork a funky aromatic edge in a lumpia taco with the same veggie and sauce profile as the amberjack ($4). I can’t recommend the vegetable taco, which is like the other two tacos minus the protein, served cold for a taco that feels like it recently left the land of the living.
► Tortillas: A server described the taco wrapper less like a tortilla and more like a “crepe-style vessel” for the tacos. Accurate enough, as was her notion that they added “taco” to the name because ... because this is Texas.
► Salsa: The icehouse illusion doesn’t extend to salsa, leaning instead on sweet soy caramel.
► Mabuhay!: Qui finds a way to say cheers with cocktails like fermented pineapple tepache and punch by the pitcher, plus beers from Prairie Ales, Hitachino Nest and a splendid blue and orange can of awful Tiger beer, the ironic $3 tallboy for the pan-Asian PBR enthusiast.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)