Fed Man 55: East Side King (35)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 35: East Side King
At the Liberty bar: 1618½ E. Sixth St. At Shangri-La: 1016 E. Sixth St.
At the Grackle: 1700 E. Sixth St.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. daily at Liberty. 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday at the Grackle.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.10.12
UPDATED 2013: The East Side King Trailer at Shangri-La has closed. 
UPDATED 2014: The ESK trailer at the Grackle has closed. 
We can all say we knew him when, this Paul Qui guy. Back when he was a cook at Uchi and started that East Side King trailer thing with two buddies from work in 2010. You’ll see more of him in this series and even more of him next year, when he opens a brick-and-mortar ESK and yet another place all his own. In the meantime, East Side King is a pan-Asian street food trailer operation that — taken as a three-part whole — deserves a place in the Fed Man 55 for taste, novelty and execution.
My first encounter with ESK at the Liberty was a cold and rainy night, like a gothic novel except with mustaches and horn-rim glasses. It seemed like dirty business, chasing street food into that filthy courtyard. But my reservations evaporated with fried beets ($7) and a Brussels sprouts salad ($7). The beets glowed a smoky vermilion, broken by green curls and rings of green onion, with pale yellow mayo like an eggy counterchorus. Chicken karaage ($8) is the poor-man’s version of Uchiko’s best fried dish: golden-crusted irregular pieces of thigh meat with a sly sauce both hot and sweet and the grassy chorus of flat-leaf parsley and basil.
When the trailer behind Shangri-La first opened with a menu of steam buns and sausage, I thought the concept had jumped the shark, going from an esoteric street savant to a one-note Asian weenie wagon. But ESK Shangri-La has evolved to add chicken-skin buns with crunchy ridges of the chicken’s best asset (two for $6) and steam buns dressed out like a bowl of pho (two for $7) that re-create the sensation of soup with only twice the mess. They’re packed with razor-thin beef and pho buddies like jalapeño, basil, onion and cilantro, served with soup broth on the side. It’s a French dip sandwich, by way of the French Vietnamese colonial days. The herbs do the talking, and a shower of fried shallots adds its crunchy measure for street food with big flavor, substance and texture.
The ESK Shangri-La trailer’s Ebi Ebi tacos (two for $8) bring tail-on shrimp stretched onto sticks tempura-style, with a rippled golden shell nestled in an Asian garden of basil, mint and cilantro, dressed out with sweet chile sauce on corn tortillas. People make a fuss over Asian-fusion street tacos, and this is why. As much as I groan at the divey contrivance of places like Shangri-La — with its last-call lighting and pigpen patio out back — I like picking from half a dozen craft beers on tap to go with my food, and a Leprechaun cider tastes like the cool shade of a vagabond’s orchard in the stuffy swelter of a summer twilight.
The ESK trailer at the Grackle has been closed all summer for renovation. Replacement, actually. It’s scheduled to reopen this Thursday (Oct. 11) with a paint job by Yellow of the Japanese punk band Peelander Z and a menu that’s likely to keep stretching our expectations of street food with foie, quail and beef rib. (See the new menu below.)
(TOP: East Side King at Shangri-La, with pho buns, Ebi Ebi tacos and chicken-skin buns. INSET: Fried beets and chicken karaage at ESK at the Liberty. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants